The Hidden Path by Rosalie E F Ross

The young girl returned to the empty, cheerless house after work one bone cold evening. Propped up against the ketchup bottle on the kitchen table was an envelope, previously used, with his name and the address crossed out and the word Important printed in heavy pencil to the side. She opened the flap and took out the note; it was unsigned but written in her father’s usual curt style, the letters squeezed together so tightly that they would have suffocated if they had been organic. The words seemed to spit out at her:
The Hidden Path
The Hidden Path by Rosalie E F Ross
Doley, I’m going away and putting the house up for sale. I want you out by the end of the month. My mail is being re-directed, but if anything comes, take it to Allen & Partners on your way to work. You will leave everything clean and tidy - OR I WILL KNOW ABOUT IT! PS. The enclosed should get you into a bedsit. DON’T WASTE IT!!! ‘Oh God, Oh God!’ she cried, forcing herself to read the note again. Slowly she lowered herself onto a chair, its legs screeching on the faded lino, the awful noise jolting her out of the shock that felt as though it had been slammed into her. He had given no warning, not even so much as a hint that he was planning to leave. And she had done her level best for him all this time. Her mother, Mary, had died six weeks earlier, but well before she had been too ill to manage, Yvonne, at just sixteen years of age, had willingly taken over the bulk of household chores. The house was always clean and tidy, his clothes washed and ironed, and a hot meal ready for him every night. She put her rent money on the kitchen table each Friday and he had taken it without as much as a nod of acknowledgement. She had given him no cause to complain, no reason to do this to her. She did not deserve this. Her anger grew as her shock abated; now the implications of the note began to hit her with full force. She was about to be thrown out of her home - cast aside like a worn-out shoe. How dare he - how dare he! She picked up the small bundle of well used pound notes and counted them; it did not take long. Ten quid - was that all she was worth - just ten quid? Noises seemed to claw their way up from somewhere deep in her chest and broke out as sobs. ‘Oh Mum...Mum, if only…’ Now she needed to move, to do something, anything but sit here and feel all this pain. She rushed up the stairs to her father’s bedroom and gasped, even the bed had been stripped bare. She pulled out drawers and flung open wardrobe doors. Empty. He had not left behind so much as a twisted metal coat hanger. She walked around the rest of the small terraced house in a daze, the tears drying on her face, willing herself to wake up from this nightmare, desperate to find something to convince her that none of this was really happening. But there was nothing. Owen Williams had done a thorough job of completely eradicating himself; it was as though he had rubbed himself out. The man - her so-called father - had gone. Although, he had never really been there at all, had he? Face it Doley! Doley! Of all things to think about at a time like this, why did it have to be the hateful name he had always called her? A tiny trace of relief crept in, at least she wouldn’t have to hear him sneer that word at her again, nor it’s incessant, accompanying mantra: You’re nothing but a hole in the Durex. A Durex hole dolly! You weren’t planned, just you remember that my girl. You’re nothing but a nuisance; a millstone around my neck. You’ll never amount to anything. Good for nothing. Never were, never will be. Sneaking in through a hole like that. You shouldn’t be here, taking up someone else’s space. You’re a waste of time. Ruined my life, you hear, ruined - and don’t you ever forget it! She had never discovered the cause of his venomous tirade, but she had learnt how to cope with it - by forcing it to bypass her conscious mind and letting it sink somewhere deep and hidden inside her. She had to get out, escape the place where the very air itself seemed hostile, the same air he had breathed just hours before. Throwing the letter and money into her bag, she ran out of the house and kept running until she reached a large Victorian detached house several streets away. She stumbled awkwardly as she climbed the iron steps at the side of the building. Hearing her noisy approach, Sandra, her good friend who had been there for her throughout the past dreadful year, hurried to open the door to her small first floor flat and let her in. It took a while for them both to calm down and rational thinking to return. At last, Yvonne’s passionate outbursts at the unfairness and cruelty of the situation became less frequent, and Sandra began to insist that she stop overnight. ‘I’ll make up the sofa. I’ve got to go in in the morning, but the three o’clock perm’s cancelled and I’m sure Tanya’ll let me off early if I…well, you know. And the Chronicle’s out tomorrow, so you go through the places to rent and try to set-up some appointments. There’s bound to be something going down Cromwell Avenue.’ * Success came in the form of a large bedsit very close to the town centre. She moved in the following Saturday and set about trying to reconstruct her life. However, her heart just wasn’t in it. She missed her mother more with each passing day and felt as though a heavy, oppressive cloak of gloom had enfolded itself around her and was slowly suffocating the life out of her. Sandra tried hard to jolly her friend along, but all her efforts proved as ineffective as a plaster on a constantly bleeding wound. Then Tom had appeared on the scene and Sandra’s focus shifted. He was a kind-hearted soul and it was not long before he felt that he would like to do something for his girlfriend’s best friend. Closing the door one evening after watching Yvonne descend the steps and walk away, alone again, he put the idea he had been mulling over for a few weeks to Sandra. ‘I’ve been thinking, do you think she’d agree to go out with a mate of mine?’ ‘What, you mean, make a foursome? Like a blind date?’ she asked, immediately taken with the idea. ‘Well, it’s an idea, isn’t it? I told you about Tony being dumped; might help take his mind off things a bit.’ ‘Can’t do any harm I suppose. Go on then, fix it up, and I’ll try and get her to go along with it.’ Pleasant though they had been, after the third blind date Yvonne felt it only fair to ask Tom to stop his well-meaning efforts on her behalf. She really could not be bothered with the whole boyfriend-girlfriend thing; somehow it seemed so trivial, and all just too much effort. After another three months she came to the conclusion that she was actually more depressed now than the day she had first moved into the bedsit, at least then there had been a tiny portion of hope mixed in with the unhappiness. Now there was just an unshakable, aching wretchedness. Even her office job was as mundane as it was soul-destroying, and now it looked as though her days there could be numbered. What was it her boss had said just the other day, making a point of looking in her direction? ‘One more account down the swanny and we’ll have to start thinking of laying someone off.’ She should probably start looking for another job; if only she could drum up some enthusiasm. Later that week she wandered into the local labour exchange and half-heartedly read the cards. There appeared to be nothing suitable. She made herself go round again and pay more attention. As usual, there were plenty of vacancies for invoice or accounts clerks and comptometer operators, but days of constant figure work and punching endless figures into a machine did not appeal at all. Maybe she could try factory or shop work, places full of girls her own age. It was something to think about. She reached the Vacancies In Other Areas board, which was something she had ignored on her first circuit, and her eye was caught by one of the cards in the Hotel and Domestic Vacancies section: Well-known Holiday Camp on the East Coast requires seasonal staff for all departments. Ideal for students. Must be hardworking, willing and adaptable. If you like the idea of spending summer by the sea, then we can offer free board & lodging, plus small wage. End-of-season bonus. Contact… She read it again, then again. Well, why not? She was not afraid of hard work, and all she needed was a bed and a place to hang her clothes anyway. Why shouldn’t she give it a try? What had she got to lose? She was going slowly mad here, and whatever it turned out to be, it would definitely be a change, and it would be nice to spend the summer by the sea. It was so easy. After a brief telephone conversation with the Camp Director she was offered a chalet maid position. The man had sounded pleasant enough, although she did find it strange that he didn’t seem interested in her work experience, nor had he asked for her current employer’s contact details. She worked a week’s notice, packed her suitcase, said a tearful goodbye to Sandra and Tom, and turned her back on King’s Lynn. Hope, which had been elusive and absent from her life for so long, had returned, making her steps quick and light as she walked to the railway station. They said that the world was a big place; it stood to reason that somewhere out there must be a new life just waiting for her. Now all she had to do was to find it. Chapter 2 En Route and Arrival (1970: present day) Yvonne watched the yellow ribbon of light coming from a long line of still open-curtained kitchen and sitting room windows stream past. Minutes later, only the occasional glow from an isolated farmhouse pierced the thick blackness outside. Sitting alone in the darkened compartment, she felt that the last ten years had flashed by just as fast. She sighed and looked away, trying to remember where she had packed her references. She opened her duffle bag and sighed with relief. Yes, there it was, the plastic wallet containing the precious collection; the only tangible evidence she possessed to show for all that time and effort. As complimentary and detailed though they were, these hard-earned testimonials failed to express some of the other skills she had developed over the years, amongst them the ability to fit into diverse groups of floating, temporary people, at saying ‘Hello’ and being ‘the new girl’, and at packing and saying ‘Goodbye.’ At first it had been an exciting and stimulating way of life. She knew that she was different from her contemporaries back in King’s Lynn, many of whom seemed to be too frightened to spread their wings and try anything new. Like Sandra, most of them were still working in the same job they’d had since leaving school. She used to pity them, but not anymore. In fact, given the opportunity, she would gladly change places with any one of them. Now she found herself continually wondering what it would be like to have walls around her that did not change with the seasons. It was getting harder to protect the small, bright flame of hope that flared within her whenever she packed for yet another job in yet another area, wishing that maybe, just maybe, and by some miracle, this would turn out to be the one. But things would inevitably turn sour. And each time it had been her fault. Something hidden and secret inside her, something that she was not able to control, would agitate and irritate her so much that she would feel compelled to move on. And it had happened again. If this carried on much longer she felt sure that it would soon be almost impossible for her to continue to show the expected, cheerful face to her constantly changing world. A small group of noisy, youthful passengers banged into her carriage door as they made their unsteady way along the corridor. One of them looked in and mouthed, ‘Sorry’. She stood to pull down the blinds and switch on two of the small overhead lights. Folding her long sloppy joe cardigan into a cushion, she stretched out along one of the narrow rows of seats and carefully poured a cup of cocoa from her flask, deciding that it was pleasant having the whole compartment to herself; there were some advantages to the solitary way of life after all. The train rumbled on through the night, occasionally disturbing its passengers with sudden jolts and violent whooshes of air as it met and passed those going south. Morning came, and a voice from the end of the carriage called, ‘Edinburgh next stop. Next stop Edinburgh.’ Soon they were approaching Waverley Station. She positioned herself by the door’s open window, the blast of cold air shocking her into a much needed alertness, but still she was not prepared for the unexpected lurch the train gave as it finally juddered to a stop. The ground seemed to sway beneath her feet when she stepped out and she was obliged to hold onto a nearby trolley until the sensation passed. Steady again, she heaved her faithful old suitcase onto the trolley base and set off in search of the station café. A cup of strong tea and several slices of toast helped to revive her as she watched the hustle and bustle of life on the platform outside. Anyone looking her way would have seen an unremarkable young woman, dressed for warmth and comfort in a sensible dark green duffle coat. Her face had often been described as being ‘pleasant’, and, as usual, this morning it was framed by many unruly tendrils of dark, auburn hair, the main part of which hung in a long plait down her back. What they would not have seen was the young woman’s inner resolve that today was to be the start of a new way of life. For some time now she had been aware of a flaw, or weakness, for she was never quite sure what to call it, in her character. The annoying defect consisted mainly of the ability to effectively jettison herself out of any relationship that threatened to become serious. No amount of persistent, gentle coaxing had ever succeeded in persuading her to think again and change her mind. She would give some spurious but plausible sounding reason as to why it was essential for her to leave as soon as possible. The realisation of its existence had led to alarm, then shame, when she found herself unable to change, no matter how hard she tried, and she really did try. Eventually, tired of the battle, she was forced to accept that this was a permanent and very unpleasant part of her personality. Now, at the age of 27, she had made what she considered to be a very sensible decision: she would live without the unwelcome complications and added burdens of anything even remotely romantic. Life was fraught enough without wasting energy hauling all that unnecessary, confusing and painful baggage around. If only she had come to her senses before; for all she knew she might have already missed several opportunities to settle down. So then, from now on, all types of close association with men were out, and hopefully a more controlled, and, therefore, peaceful existence, was in. Naturally she would have to have some dealings with them, but she would make sure that these would be strictly limited to only what was really necessary or genuinely unavoidable. Such was her frame of mind as she sat back to enjoy her second cup of tea. She was resolved; the decision had been made, the time was now. And with a bit of luck, the place might even be Scotland. * The world seemed to have woken up, and half of it appeared to be boarding the Inverness-bound train with her. At last, doors were slammed, a long shrill whistle pierced the air like a knife, and they were off. There were five other passengers in her compartment, and it was not long before cigarettes, newspapers and magazines were being offered around. Her contribution was a packet of Spangles and a depleted stock of sticky toffees. It was pleasant to be part of such a friendly group, even if it was just for one small part of this otherwise long and lonely journey. Declining another cigarette, she gave herself an invisible pat on the back for the way she was handling the social interaction between herself and the two male passengers. If all her contact with the opposite sex could be as satisfactory as this, then she would have no trouble. They chatted amiably as the train sped on. Only one of them, a scholarly looking, pipe-smoking gentleman, claimed to have ventured as far as her destination. ‘Good luck to you, lassie,’ he called over his shoulder as he stepped off the train at Aviemore, ‘you’ll enjoy the peace, no doubt.’ So, she was going to a peaceful place then? She nodded, and hoped her face did not betray the growing concern that had been gradually creeping back into her mind since leaving King’s Lynn. She had fought hard against it since her search through the various travel books in the local library had revealed only the barest facts about the area, and nothing at all about the Tananeach Inn. Now the man’s well-intentioned comment had brought it all back, and along with it, her doubts about accepting a job in what sounded to be such a remote and distant place. But it was too late now to indulge in second thoughts - or even third. There had been another change at Invermaden, after which the train hugged the shores of a large estuary, stopping frequently at barely discernible halts and small, quiet stations. The few remaining passengers who left were rarely replaced, and she began to suspect that soon the only two people left on board would be the unseen driver and herself, and the thought made her feel uneasy. They arrived at Braegarroch Halt at thirty-five minutes past four, the expected time. Stepping down onto the deserted, pocket-handkerchief sized platform, she felt an almost overpowering urge to get straight back on-board and be taken away from this wild and lonely place. ‘Get a grip,’ she told herself, as she stood watching the train creak to a slow start before disappearing from view, its comforting mechanical rumble gradually fading away. ‘This is the right place, and they’re probably on the way. There a bit late, that’s all.’ A chilly breeze picked up. Afraid that she would get cold and not be able to do anything about it, she started pacing back and forth along the narrow path leading away from the platform, going a little further each time. Something would have to be done if the expected lift did not come soon. She listened for any traffic noise nearby, but there was none. In fact, there was no human type of sound at all, just birds singing, the whisper of gently swaying branches, and the plaintiff calling of countless newborn lambs. It was indeed a very peaceful place. More anxious minutes passed, and she was still debating what to do, when she heard the reassuring sound of a car engine approaching. It stopped some distance away, and what sounded like a car door slam shut a few seconds later. Footsteps came swiftly towards her and soon an elderly man appeared. He was a shabbily dressed individual; his jacket was seriously faded and his badly stained trousers were held up by a wide, leather belt. ‘Miss Williams, is it?’ he asked, squinting at her from beneath the peak of his grimy, threadbare cap. ‘Er, yes,’ she replied cautiously. ‘Are you from the Tananeach Inn?’ hoping that she had pronounced the name correctly. It appeared that she had when he stepped forward to pick up her case and began leading the way along the path. ‘Och, in a way lass. Come along now, we’re running late.’ They walked on in silence before reaching a clearing where a mud-spattered land rover stood. ‘In you get,’ he instructed, carelessly flinging her case in the back, before hopping nimbly into the driver’s seat. She paused uncertainly, struggling to take stock of the situation. To begin with, there had been no proper station, not even a platform, just a block of concrete in the middle of nowhere, then this strange, unkempt little man had turned up, and now she was expected to get into his dirty old car! She didn’t even know his name, and what did he mean by saying that he was from the Inn, ‘in a way’? Now what on earth had she let herself in for? Resigned to her fate, she clambered unceremoniously up beside him, and had just enough time to take her seat before being thrown sideways as he executed a jerky three point turn. ‘And is it so that you’ve come a long way this day?’ he asked, straightening-up the vehicle. Holding on tightly to the door handle with one hand, and gripping the side of her seat with the other, she managed to reply, ‘Yes, from King’s Lynn.’ ‘And where would that be now?’ he asked. ‘In Norfolk.’ ‘And how many miles would that be?’ ‘About seven hundred I think.’ ‘Och, and did you come all that way by the trains?’ ‘Yes. It’s been quite a journey, and I actually left yesterday morning.’ Bright flashes of something blue-grey between the trees caught her eye, and now she had a question for him. ‘Is there a…a loch through there?’ ‘Aye, that would be Loch Laith, and the river end of it. It’s fine and deep and good for the fishing. You’ll maybe have some for your tea this night.’ She felt a pang of hunger at the mention of food and hoped that there would be something substantial to eat waiting for her at the Inn, however, experience had taught her not to expect too much. These few thoughts came and went, as did the small lochside village of Braegarroch. They were steadily climbing, the line of trees beside the roadside eventually giving way to dark, still sleeping hedgerows. Grey boulders lay scattered on the lower slopes of the surrounding hillsides. Descending again into a more gentle, tree covered area, he broke the silence by announcing that they had just entered Ardgealish. This turned out to be a tiny hamlet of about a dozen or so well-spaced detached cottages, each framed by the fresh greens, yellows, purples and whites of slowly awakening spring flowers and hedgerows that surrounded the whole delightful scene. ‘What a pretty place!’ she exclaimed enthusiastically, unable to let such a sight pass without making some sort of appreciative comment. The old man was satisfied with her reaction, and, trying not to sound too smug, replied, ‘Aye, it suits me well enough. You can keep your bright city lights.’ They journeyed on. After a particularly nasty jolt, she enquired hopefully, ‘Are we near Tananeach yet, Mr…er?’ ‘Och, the name’s Murray, and there’s no such place. The Inn will be all there will be.’ ‘Really? Just the Inn?’ ‘Aye.’ ‘Oh, I see.’ She spent several moments digesting this piece of information along with its implications before asking, ‘What does Tananeach actually mean? I tried to find out before I left, but couldn’t find the word in the Gaelic Dictionary.’ ‘Aye, and you wouldn’a either. It’s been mucked about, and Taigh nan an T’Eirrach in the Gaelic. You’d be saying House of Spring, and built in that season, so I’m thinking.’ By now they had reached the edge of another loch, its surface disturbed by small, windblown ripples. He gestured towards it. ‘Loch Nan Solas, and the Inn just by.’ They were approaching a long, unexceptional looking building, the starkness of its whitewashed walls and black painted window surrounds softened only by the presence of several mature rowan trees standing, sentry-like, either side of a glass vestibule. A public telephone box stood to the right of the entrance. To the left extended a large conservatory, situated, no doubt, to take advantage of the view of the loch and imposing slopes and snow-capped ridges of a distant mountain range. A turning circle, surrounded by a substantial rockery of roughly hewn stones and swathes of white, red and purple heather, led them to a parking area on the other side. Yvonne sighed with relief as she climbed out of the car. She stood for a while, staring into the distance, and began to wonder at the sheer beauty and vastness of it all. She was used to the low, flat terrain of the Fens; land that just lay there with its far-reaching expanses of hedgeless fields, interrupted only by arrow-straight dykes and canopied by seemingly endless skies. The seconds passed, and, with some satisfaction, the old man noticed that the early evening sun was casting a soft, golden glow over the whole scene, turning the colours even deeper and more vibrant than usual. He glanced over at the quine*; he had seen this same, hypnotic effect before and decided to let the land weave its powerful spell a while longer. A full minute was to pass before he broke into her reverie. ‘Come away in now, lassie. They’ll be expecting you.’ Reluctantly, she forced herself to rally and look away from the intoxicating scene as she turned to follow him. And then, trying to convey a confidence she did not feel, she entered the Tananeach Inn for the first time. *Quine: Gaelic - young unmarried woman or girl. Chapter 3 ‘Hello, it’s Yvonne isn’t it? Do come in,’ said a slightly older than middle-aged woman standing behind a small reception counter. She was compact and dumpy, and flawlessly dressed in a matching twin set and a row of what looked like real pearls clasped around her neck. ‘I’m Georgina MacMan. Come on through,’ she trilled, opening the flap. Before Yvonne was able to offer any type of reply, the woman turned and began leading the way into a surprisingly modern kitchen. ‘I expect you’ll be wanting a cup of tea before you go Hamish?’ Feeling that a wee dram would have suited him better, Hamish doffed his cap, and replied in a dull, flat tone, ‘Aye, that’ll do,’ thus making his dissatisfaction obvious. ‘You too, Yvonne?’ ‘If it’s no trouble.’ ‘No trouble at all, is it Niall?’ she said, addressing the profile of a small, stocky figure, clad in chef’s whites, whose whole attention appeared to be on the knife he was holding menacingly over a large, dead fish on a wooden block. The man made no response. Georgina tut-tutted loudly and marched over to stand beside him, her face coming perilously close to the ominous looking blade. With a very obvious edge to her voice, she repeated, ‘No trouble at all, is it Niall? Look sharp now, this is Yvonne who’s come to help us. The kettle’s boiled, hasn’t it?’ ‘Aye, that it has, Mrs Mac,’ came the somewhat begrudging reply. Georgina let out a forced sigh and turned to face Yvonne. ‘Excellent. Well now, Yvonne, this is Niall, our chef.’ The man shot the swiftest of glances in Yvonne’s direction. ‘Hello Niall...’ said Yvonne, stopping short of the customary, ‘it’s nice to meet you,’ which she felt at that moment would have been an outright lie. He mumbled something incoherent and began to decapitate the fish. Hamish had been standing in the doorway, and deciding that no mug of tea was worth all this mither, muttered something about ‘lambs awaiting,’ and made a swift exit. His reaction had not been lost on Georgina, who felt that a more positive slant on the situation was needed. Flashing a quick smile at Yvonne, she walked over to the hob and began tentatively tapping the side of a large enamel kettle on one of the hot plates. ‘We’re so glad you’ve come to join us, Yvonne, and just as well you came now, you’ll have time to find your feet before we get too busy.’ She darted a warning look across at Niall. ‘Isn’t that right, Niall?’ ‘Aye, if you say so, Mrs Mac,’ came the unconvincing reply as he proceeded to pull out the fish’s backbone. ‘Indeed I do. Good, good. Well now, Yvonne, the staff corridor’s through there and up the stairs.’ She pointed to a door at the far end of the room. ‘Your room’s the third on the right. Go on up and I’ll bring you a drink in a minute. Tea…coffee?’ Yvonne placed her order, picked up her suitcase, and carefully negotiated her way past the disagreeable little man. She had already unpacked most of her belongings when Georgina appeared a few minutes later, panting slightly and with a mug in her hand. ‘Here we are then. Er, by the way, you won’t mind Niall now, will you? You know what these chefs are like.’ She rolled her eyes dramatically. ‘So temperamental! But I’m sure you two’ll get along just fine once you get used to his little ways.’ Yvonne took the mug and thanked her, hoping that the man’s ‘little ways’ would not turn out to be big ones. ‘Well now,’ said Georgina, giving the room a cursory glance, ‘it’s nothing fancy, but I think you’ve got everything you need. You’ll find more pillows and blankets in the cupboard by the bathroom if you need them.’ She pointed to a room at the far end of the corridor. ‘Down there, and the staff room’s next to it. Oh, and you might need to put the gas fire on later, but do make sure you turn it off before you turn in. Flora’s left you some matches somewhere. Staff breakfast’s at half past seven, but we’ll let you have a bit of a lay-in tomorrow; just this once mind. I’ll get her to bring you up a tray.’ ‘That’s very kind, but I don’t mind coming down…’ ‘No, no! She’s keen to meet you; you’ll be working with her most of the time. You can spend the rest of the day getting your bearings, and then make a start on Thursday.’ Pleasantly surprised at such unusual kindness, Yvonne tried to make an adequate response, but could only manage an uninspired, ‘Thank you, that sounds lovely.’ Satisfied that she had conveyed all the information needed at this stage, Georgina said, ‘Well then, I’ll leave you to get organised,’ as she turned for the stairs, then called back, ‘Oh yes, I nearly forgot, you must be peckish, dinner’s in half an hour, in the kitchen. Well, good night for now, and we’ll be seeing you tomorrow.’ Yvonne briefly considered refusing the meal, not relishing the idea of facing that surly little man again so soon, but hunger won. ‘Thank you Mrs MacMan. Till tomorrow then.’ * Niall hurled himself down at his place at the staff table. He was a worried man. The ruddy girl had arrived. Ever since he’d heard that she was expected he’d tried to convince himself that she would back out, but here she was, and as bold as brass. Now he was in a rare old fix. It was so unfair; so ruddy, ruddy unfair. Six months had passed since he’d had to hightail it out of town after that bungled off-licence job. He wasn’t going to stick around to get slammed-up like the rest of those stupid sods. Everyone knew that Niall Turvey was too canny for that. Yes indeedy, fate had dealt him a good hand when he’d landed up here. The Chiefs hadn’t asked too many questions and had been only too glad to have him, and too right too; a damn good cook like him didn’t come along every day of the week! It took him a while, but he’d even found some use for the countryside; now he could move about at any time of the day or night without having to watch his back. And then he’d come up with the idea that would secure his position here, permanently. No more seasonal jobs for him! He’d heard about a certain local spinster, and an only child at that, called Maggie MacKay. They said that her family owned a tidy croft - and an even tidier bit of land to go with it. It didn’t take him long to make his move, and it had worked like a treat; the soppy hen had almost fallen into his arms. Okay, so she wasn’t much of a looker, and a bit soft in the head, but she’d suit his purposes very nicely. Very nicely indeed. Now all he had to do was to get her away from those ruddy parents of hers, and he’d almost succeeded, but then the Chiefs went and put the kibosh on the whole thing when they announced that they’d already filled the newly created post of General Assistant. Bang went his grand plan! Why hadn’t they listened to him when he’d hinted that he knew someone fit for the job? Sometimes even they were so ruddy thick. And they’d sounded so pleased with themselves, saying that this new girl was ‘very experienced’ - and he knew only too well what that meant. She’d turn out to be just like all the others; another vodka-swilling floater, shrieking around the place like a banshee and hopping into bed with any moron daft enough to unzip his flies. That was one good thing about Maggie, she knew her place and did what she was told alright. But this English girl was going to be a ruddy nuisance. Hadn’t she just proved it? She’d only been here five minutes and already caused grief between him and the Chief. Why’d they have to go and get her in and ruin all his plans? Oh yes, he was worried alright, and it was all her fault. * Yvonne finished her unpacking, then washed her face and hands in water the colour of weak tea. She entered the kitchen at precisely six o’clock. Having persuaded herself to give Niall a second chance, she succeeded in sounding upbeat as she greeted him with a friendly, ‘Hello again.’ He jerked his head towards a large, rectangular table in the corner, and barked, ‘Over there!’ Then, hands and arms laden with serving dishes, he pushed his way through a door and disappeared into what she assumed to be the dining room. She crossed the room and sat down, convinced now that this chef was definitely temperamental, and might well prove to be even bossier and ruder than some of the others she had had the misfortune to meet. He returned a few moments later, and without a word, bent to retrieve a covered plate from the bottom of the large oven. He pushed it none to carefully across the table in her direction before turning to busy himself in the cold store, hoping that she would get the message loud and clear that he wasn’t about to start pandering to the likes of her. Yvonne enjoyed her meal of minced beef in a rich gravy with mashed potatoes, swede and carrots, and decided that the peas were the sweetest she had ever tasted. Every so often Niall would emerge from his cold hideout to hurry back into the dining room, returning soon after with empty serving dishes. On his third trip, and overcome with curiosity, she ventured to ask, ‘Is it the waitress’s night off?’ He almost spat out his reply, ‘There’s only three in, and the Chiefs do the waitin’ on table, but they’re off tonight. They’re okay people, and don’t need no messin’ about, see, so don’t you go causin’ them no grief.’ Now she felt her own hackles begin to rise, nevertheless, she managed to ask calmly, ‘Why on earth would I do that? I was only asking because it seems to me that you’re kept pretty busy.’ ‘Aye, and that’s the way I like it, see. We run a tidy ship here; it’s a good team and we don’t need the likes of you comin’ to scuttle it.’ She was shocked, not only with his undisguised animosity, but at the knowledge that, apparently, here was a hotel that had no need of a waitress! If the place was that quiet, then maybe he had a point - what was she doing here? She made short work of the desert, a particularly good crème brûlée, and wondered how such tasty food could have been prepared by such a sour character. Then, tired though she was, and resolving not to let herself sink to his level, she gathered up her dishes and walked towards the sink, saying, ‘Thanks, that was very nice.’ ‘Leave them!’ he ordered, ‘what d’ya think the ruddy dishwasher’s for?’ ‘Hey, keep your hair on! I was only going to rinse them.’ She was just a few feet away from him now and noticed a thin, jagged white line running down his left cheek and disappear into the corner of his mouth. It looked like an old scar. Somehow she was not surprised. It was with some relief that she returned to her room and shut the door firmly behind her. She bathed, watched television and read before turning-in, telling herself that tomorrow was another day, and she would face whatever - and whoever - needed to be faced then. Chapter 4 A light tapping sound seemed to be coming from somewhere nearby, followed by a woman’s voice, ‘Hello-o, hello-o-o-o. Are you awake in there quine?’ Struggling to surface from a deep sleep, Yvonne tried to remember where she was, as she replied, ‘Er, hello.’ ‘I’ve your breakfast here. Shall I be bringing it in?’ called the voice. ‘Oh…yes. Come in.’ The door opened to reveal an elderly woman holding a tray laden with breakfast things. She spoke in a clear, slightly clipped Highland accent as she crossed the room to deposit the tray on the table. ‘Good morning, lassie, and how are you this day? Did you sleep fine?’ Yvonne managed a sleepy, ‘Yes, yes thank you.’ Twitching the curtains open a few inches, the woman turned to take a look at the bleary-eyed English girl who was attempting to sit up. ‘I’m Flora, Hamish’s wife; he came to fetch you off the train yesterday.’ She made one last inspection of the tray’s contents. ‘There you are now; it’s good and hot, so eat-up before it gets cold.’ Satisfied, she turned for the door and began closing it behind her, calling a musical, ‘Cheery-bye for now,’ as she left. ‘Okay, and thank you again.’ ‘Aye, aye,’ sang the disjointed voice, whose owner was now even more curious than ever about the girl who had already managed to upset Niall. Muttering quietly to herself as she descended the stairs, she decided that Mrs MacMan was right about that accent, very English to be sure. And wouldn’t she be quite the pretty thing if it wasn’t for all that paleness. Bemused and still slightly disoriented, Yvonne rubbed her eyes and tried to focus on her surroundings. Yes, everything was the same as when she had closed them the night before, although now she noticed that the mat and curtains had obviously seen better days, as had the chair and table by the window. The wardrobe and chest of drawers had proved more than adequate for her belongings, but the objects that pleased her the most were the sink and the small, mounted gas fire. All in all, it was a really nice room, and such a difference from the usually shared and shambolic accommodation she had been given throughout her scattered and varied career. And it was hers - all hers! She stepped out of bed and shivered as she wrapped her dressing gown tightly around her and hurried to the bathroom. Returning, she lit the fire and settled herself at the table, feeling more like a guest than a member of staff as she made short work of the porridge, before tackling the mound of scrambled eggs and the strange, square shaped sausage. She told herself to count her blessings and make the most of it; all this was surely too good to be true. No doubt things would go downhill from now on. She rinsed her empty dishes and washed in the tea-tinted water. As she dressed, she wondered at how the neat looking Flora could be married to someone as scruffy as Hamish; now there was a case of opposites attracting if ever there was one! Finally, she re-read the Inn’s advertisement in the February issue of The Lady: General Assistant needed to be part of small team in the remote but lovely Highlands of Scotland. Comfortable accommodation provided. All true enough; the team certainly sounded small, the area was definitely remote and lovely, and her room was comfortable. But it had been the next sentence that had really attracted her: Temporary position with the possibility of becoming permanent for the right person. There, that was the hook. And now only time would tell if she was indeed ‘the right person’. * She walked into the kitchen at ten o’clock and was met by an awkward silence. She guessed that the four occupants had been talking about her, and was relieved when a man, his face well hidden behind a pair of large, tortoiseshell rimmed glasses, and a bushy, salt and pepper coloured beard, rose and walked towards her, a wide smile breaking through the hairy mass. ‘Ah, hello there! It’s Yvonne isn’t it? Come on in. We’ve been expecting you. Here, let me take that.’ He relieved her of the tray and put it on the draining board. Turning back, he looked down at her, with, what she felt, were pleasant and kindly brown eyes. ‘I’m Donald MacMan, but you can call me Donald. And I think you’ve already met the rest of the crew,’ he gestured towards the table, ‘Mrs MacMan, Flora and Niall?’ Yvonne turned towards the group, and said to no one in particular, ‘Yes, hello again. Thank you for the breakfast. It was a real treat.’ ‘Och, that’s no trouble quine,’ responded Flora, who found herself being impressed by the pale and polite girl, who, having undertaken such an arduous trip only the day before, had made the effort to present herself in a fresh and tidy sort of way. A disgruntled, ‘Humph!’was all Niall could manage, conveniently forgetting his own first day when he had been given the same breakfast in bed privilege. Patting the empty chair beside her, Mrs MacMan invited Yvonne to sit down. ‘Sleep well? It was a touch cold last night. You remembered about the fire?’ ‘Yes, and fine thank you, very comfortable. It’s a really nice room.’ ‘Good, good. Well, come along, help yourself to some coffee.’ Yvonne looked with some wonder at the elegant silver plated coffee and milk jugs and plate of chocolate biscuits. Surely they didn’t do this every morning, did they? She could only think that it must be some sort of special meeting. And what did that word quine mean? Donald saw the slightly awed expression on her face, and offered to pour for her. ‘Here, let me do the honours. Half and half is the order of the day.’ Niall fidgeted in his chair and began to exude an air of restless discontent; either he was unaware of, or unable to stop one of his legs from twitching rapidly under the table. Little flurries of conversation broke out amongst the group, giving Yvonne the opportunity to study Donald and Flora more closely. Like Georgina, Donald spoke with a refined Scottish accent. Tall and gangly, with limbs that seemed to stray in all directions, his heavily bearded face hid any clue of his age, which she guessed was probably about the same as his wife. His hair was fairly long and touched the collar of his shirt, which he wore open-necked and with the sleeves rolled-up. All this, along with a slightly baggy pair of faded corduroy trousers and worn suede shoes, gave him the air of a casual, mellow type of individual. Flora looked to be in her mid to late sixties. Like Hamish, her face had been aired and coloured by years of wind and sun, although, unlike his, which had deep grooves and dark moles, hers was unlined and unblemished. Her short, fine grey hair was straight and neatly trimmed to cover the top of her ears. She had clear blue eyes, which looked upon those around her now with what could only be described as a faint air of alarm and disapproval. ‘Tut-tutting’frequently to herself at the foolishness of their chatter, she intervened now and again to remind them ‘of the great need to be wise’. It soon became apparent to Yvonne that although Flora’s frequent forthright personal observations and mild mannered censorships were accepted with good humour, they were, nevertheless, totally ignored. Remembering the discoloured water, she searched for any evidence of peat-tinted skin tones, and was not disappointed. Flora, Mrs MacMan, and what little she could see of Donald’s face, really did seem to have a light tan. Not so Niall, whose badly pitted countenance had a florid, puce hue; no healthy radiance there. Eventually Georgina decided that it was time to get down to business. If Yvonne had not already met her, she would have quickly guessed that she was the top dog around here. There was a natural air of authority about the way she conducted herself, which, although not overbearing, was still very obvious. ‘Well now, here we are. I think it would be helpful for Yvonne’s sake if I explained what we all do. Mr MacMan and I are the owners-cum-managers, that is until our son takes over. Mr MacMan runs the bar and helps out in the dining room, as well as covering the kitchen on Niall’s days off. In-between all that, he still finds time to do all the general handyman work around the place.’ A smile broke through Donald’s beard as he gave his wife one of his benevolent, ponderous looks. Flora, who had a strong dislike of male facial hair, saw her opportunity and spoke up, ‘Aye, aye, indeed it is so. A busy soul if ever there was one, but never working-up to a great steam, which is wise indeed. You have a good, healthy glow about the ears now, Mr Mac, but as for the rest of your face, well, goodness only knows!’ Yvonne would have liked to have laughed, and it was only with some difficulty that she managed to control herself. Georgina continued, ‘Yes, well thank you Flora. Now, as you already know, Niall is our chef, and Flora is the housekeeper. I run the office and reception as well as keeping tabs on the dining room…and so forth. Between us, we manage to tick-over very nicely, although it should be a touch easier now you’re here, Yvonne. Robert, that’s our son by the way, is away at the moment learning the finer details of hotel management; he’s due back in September. He’s keen to put us more on the map, as it were, and one of the ideas he’s come up with is that we start taking advantage of Art and Craft breaks, as well as the touring coaches that pass by; you know the kind of thing, coffees, light lunches…and so on.’ ‘Yep, probably working their way up to Kiliebeath for the ferry,’ explained Donald. ‘We’d make a good stopping-off point; give them a chance to stretch their legs. Going back to our roots, you might say. In days of yore we used to be a coaching inn, so I think it’s kind of poetic that we’ll be offering sustenance to weary travellers on the highways and byways again.’ Georgina, always the more down-to-earth half of the couple, found it necessary to add, ‘Yes, dear. Only now they pass by a lot quicker and miss us. Some have started already; a bit early in my opinion. Anyway, we really don’t want to take on too much to start with. He can develop things when he comes. But your main role, Yvonne, will be in the dining room and helping Flora with the housekeeping. We’ve fifteen rooms, and that’s more than enough for us to cope with. I’ll give you the tour and show you around afterwards. Oh, and yes, you mentioned that you can type, so I could do with some help in the office. You’ll also be involved with the coaches when they start; serving and clearing-up afterwards…and so on.’ Niall looked up quickly, and exclaimed in a broad, Glaswegian accent, ‘Och, Mrs Mac, she’ll no be needed in the kitchen!’ There was no way he wanted the girl hanging around his territory any more than necessary. Donald frowned, his eyebrows almost meeting to make one large caterpillar-like ridge across his forehead. ‘What’s the problem, Niall?’ he asked. ‘For goodness sake, Niall, be reasonable,’ interjected Georgina. ‘I’m sure Yvonne won’t get under your feet. And it should only be two or three times a week, if that. She’ll be in and out before you know it.’ For some reason that she could not fathom, Niall had been more difficult than usual to manage recently, and now he was even making a fuss about this. But Niall was not going to let the matter drop. ‘Why can’t Flora do it?’ he asked, jabbing a finger in Yvonne’s direction, and adding, ‘and let her do the beds. Flora’s always whinin’ on about her back.’ Georgina stared hard at him. As far as she was concerned there was no need for any further discussion; matters had already been decided. And that was that. ‘Flora and I have already had a chat, and you’re happy with the arrangement, aren’t you Flora?’ Flora nodded. ‘Indeed I am Mrs Mac, indeed I am. And I’m thinking it will work out just fine.’ ‘Good, good. That’s settled then, and Yvonne, you can make a start with Flora tomorrow morning.’ She rose, then remembered the phone call that had come in just before the meeting. ‘By the way Niall, there’ll be one more for dinner tonight. Well, I think that’s everything. Things to do; busy, busy, busy.’ Keen to leave before Niall could find anything else to cause difficulties over, she hurried out, calling behind her, ‘Donald - a word.’ Draining his cup, Donald slowly raised himself to his feet and gave Yvonne a noticeable wink as he followed obediently behind. ‘Bye for now folks.’ Flora stood and harrumphed. ‘Well now, isn’t that just the thing! She’s forgotten about showing you around.’ She glanced at the wall clock. ‘Och, but let me see now, I’m ahead of myself, so I could be fitting it in. And I’m thinking twelve o’clock would be a fine time.’ ‘That would be great, thanks,’ replied Yvonne. ‘Just you come and meet me in reception then,’ said Flora, leaving the room and calling one of her musical ‘Cheery-bye’s’ behind her. Yvonne stood and began making her own way towards the door to the staff stairs. The combination of the coffee and biscuits on top of the substantial breakfast seemed to be laying heavy, so she looked in Niall’s general direction and said, ‘I don’t think I could fit any lunch in today Niall. Bye for now,’ and left without waiting for any reply. * Even at a leisurely pace the tour could have been completed in less than fifteen minutes, instead of the best part the forty which it actually took, mainly due to Flora’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the Inn and its owners, past and present. They began in the guest lounge. The sun was shining and several windows were open; a breeze catching the white lace curtains, causing them to float gracefully into the room. From there, they went into the dining room, which, apart from the impressive views, Yvonne considered was much the same as any other to be found in most medium sized establishments. She learnt that Donald was the creator of the large silk flower displays that nestled away in some of the darker corners. Standing before a particularly large one, Flora commented, ‘More dusting. Och well, I suppose some folks are that way inclined and like having such fripperies around the place,’ making it clear what she thought of such things. Prints of famous Scottish faces, places and historic events hung on cream, wallpapered walls. Mrs MacMan had let it be known from the start that she had no intention of wasting her energy, nor anyone else’s, tending the large open coal fires in the public areas, and no time had been lost in replacing them with modern electric ones, each one boasting an artificial log or coal display. The guest bedrooms were pleasant and had a more modern feel. Flora pointed to a group of prints depicting contemporary Highland scenes as they walked along the guest corridor. ‘See now, young Robert’s stamp on the place. All the way from Edinburgh, and I’m thinking none too cheap. But what that lad wants, that lad gets.’ The tour ended leaving Yvonne with the overall impression that the Inn was an unremarkable but comfortable place. She had worked and lived in far worse. Satisfied that she had done the place justice, Flora led the way to the housekeeping storeroom, saying, ‘There’s just the back. Then I must away.’ The air was chilly when they stepped outside. Yvonne crossed her arms tightly across her chest. Pointing to some metal steps, Flora said, ‘It’s a fire escape mind, but handy if you don’t want to be bothering the inside. So, there you are now, I’d better away; Hamish will be fixating on the empty table. Till tomorrow then, eight o’clock, like I said.’ She retrieved an ancient looking bicycle from a nearby lean-to, and called her usual ‘Cheery-bye,’ as she rode off. She came to an abrupt stop after a few yards and signalled Yvonne to join her. ‘Now mind what I said quine, take no heed of Niall. He’s a tricky mix of a soul, but a fair enough cook. Aye, you’ll be needing to feel your way with that one.’ She leant forward and patted Yvonne’s arm. ‘And I’m glad you’ve come, lassie, aye, truly glad,’ and with that, she re-mounted the cumbersome device and pedalled slowly away, waving and calling another tuneful, ‘Cheery-bye,’ behind her. Yvonne was sorry to see her go, but comforted herself with the thought that she would be seeing the kindly soul again in the morning. She climbed the steps and was relieved to find the door unlocked. Reaching her room, she decided to lie down for a while and think about what she should wear the next day, knowing that whatever she chose would need ironing. The place was so quiet, and still being travel-weary, she soon dropped off. She woke-up some time later, feeling stiff and thirsty. The water from her tap was ice cold and helped revive her as she stood looking out of the window. It was too good a day to shut herself in, so she changed into some slacks and a thicker jumper, and left the Inn a few minutes later. Once outside, her eye was caught by the sight of countless sparkling silver ripples dancing along the surface of the loch; the sight appealed to her - it seemed the natural way to go. Chapter 5 There was no one around when Yvonne reached the Inn. Disappointed that her first walk here had been ruined, she ran up to her room and went to look out of the window - no, no sign of The Mad Man in the Heather. Relief flooded through her. She would have to try and find out who he was and learn something of his habits; she didn’t fancy having any more encounters like that! It would probably be best not to ask the MacMan’s, or they might start thinking of her as a nervy type; it would have to be Flora, she was bound to know all about the local eccentrics. She felt taut and restless and wondered what she could do to unwind, then remembered the ironing. Fifty minutes later she hung her limited and rather old but carefully maintained garments back in the wardrobe, having pressed each one to within an inch of its life. At six o’clock she braced herself and walked into the kitchen, her heart sinking when she realised that it would be just Niall and herself again. ‘Over there!’ he barked, jabbing a thumb at the table where a plate of sandwiches and a bowl of tinned peaches lay waiting, all uncovered. ‘That’ll be the lunch you did’na bother yourself turnin’ up for.’ ‘I did tell you I didn’t want any. Don’t you remember?’ ‘Och, stop your greetin’ and just get on with it!’ She would rather have taken a tray up to her room, but at least the oppressive silence was slightly dissipated by the sound of some indiscernible pop music coming from a transistor radio on the window sill. He began grating something, one arm moving furiously up and down like a pneumatic drill as he watched her out of the corner of his eye. She took a mouthful, and was pleased to find that although the bread had dried, the grated cheese and apple filling was still moist. As she ate, she reflected how much healthier the food was up here, so different from all the countless, greasy fry-ups and reheated leftovers she had endured over the years. It was just the atmosphere that was off. She finished and took the dishes over to the sink. ‘Leave them!’ he snapped. ‘Alright, alright!’ she replied, ‘and I’d appreciate it if you’d stop talking to me like that. Good night!’ There was no reply, but then she hadn’t really expected one. * It had just gone half past six when she entered the telephone box and dialled Sandra’s number. Soon she was answering the usual barrage of questions. ‘Yes, fine. Tiring, but I got a few hours...a few, at Inverness I, no sign of any bagpipes yet…they seem really nice...I think she’ll be okay, very efficient, businesslike, you know. Her husband’s a bit of an old hippy, the laid-back type; I get the impression she wears the trousers. The food’s good, can’t see me going hungry here, but I seem to have got on the wrong side of the chef already. What? Hang on, I ’ve got to put more money in.’ With her back turned, she was unaware of the steady crunch of tyres on the gravel as the approaching car slowly curved its way into the parking area. Nor was she aware of the driver. ‘What was that? Oh yes, you should see it, it’s one of the best I’ve ever had, even got a gas fire. Can you believe it? Yes, I expect so...’ The driver saw her and recognised her back view immediately. He had also seen the stag that had been ambling its way towards the telephone box; he had often come across the animal when out walking and knew it to be tame. But did the girl know that? The car slowed to a crawl before coming to a stop just yards away from the scene now beginning to unfold before him. Yvonne felt a heavy thud behind her and turned quickly, half expecting to see Niall glaring in at her, and was, therefore, totally unprepared for the sight that met her. ‘Oh no!’ she exclaimed. ‘What’s up, what’s the matter?’ asked Sandra. Stunned into silence, Yvonne had dropped the receiver and stood frozen to the spot, transfixed at the sight of the animal and its alarmingly pointed antlers, looming large on the other side of the glass panes. Sandra’s voice shrilled from the hanging receiver, ‘Yvonne? Are you alright? Hello, hello. Yvonne? What’s happening? Are you alright? Yvonne. Hello, hello!’ The stag had turned its head and was looking in at her with one curious and very dark eye. Obviously unconcerned, it resumed its laborious shoulder rubbing against the corner of the box, then began to emit a series of low, ominous sounding groans as it swayed back and forth. Yvonne slowly, very slowly, pulled the cord and lifted the receiver back up to her ear. ‘Sandra, shh, be quiet!’ ‘Why? What’s happening? What’s making that noise?’ Keen to stop her friend’s continued high-pitched quizzing, which, for all she knew, could be aggravating the thing, she replied in as low and steady a voice as she could manage, ‘There’s a…a reindeer, no, I mean a deer…I think, with enormous antlers...’ Just then, the stag gave one almighty push, and lifting its impressive head, made a blood-curdling groan that vibrated menacingly throughout the box. Now she felt sure that the thing was gearing up to do…whatever these things did. ‘Oh dear, I think it’s going to…’ Thankfully, Sandra had the solution. ‘Hang on. I’ll get Tom,’and off she went, yelling loudly for the only person she could think of who just had to do something about this awful situation - and right now! If Yvonne thought that she’d had enough shocks for one day, then she was soon to be proved wrong. For, there, with one hand grasping one of the ferocious beast’s antlers, and the other signalling her to be quiet, was none other than The Mad Man in the Heather! She watched, open-mouthed, as he spoke soothingly to the animal whilst calmly stroking the side of its powerful neck. A full minute passed, although it felt far longer to her, and then, to her astonishment, he began to lead the ferocious beast away. Relief flooded through her as she noticed the man’s bad limp and how heavily he leant on his stick. Sandra’s voice broke in, ‘Hello Yvonne, are you there, he’s in the bath. Typical! Isn’t there anyone you can call? 999 or someone? Oh Tom…at last, didn’t you hear me calling? Do something!’ There was some muttering, then Tom’s bemused voice came over the receiver. ‘Hello, Yvonne. What’s up? Sandra says you’re being attacked by a huge reindeer in a telephone box. Tell me she’s wrong!’ By now, the man and the stag were well clear, and all Yvonne wanted to do was to get out of her metal trap and put an end to the whole embarrassing situation. ‘Hi Tom. It… it’s alright. The Mad...a man came and took the thing away. Please tell Sandra I’m alright, and I’m sorry if… well, I’m going now. I just want to get out of here. Tell her I’ll phone again later. Bye for now.’ With that, she hastily gathered up her loose coins, pushed open the door, and ran into the Inn, giving only the swiftest of glances behind her. The MacMan’s had been laying tables in the dining room when they become aware that something out of the ordinary was happening outside. They had seen the car drive in and a man lead Rabbie away soon after. Giving each other a quizzical look, they rushed out and quickly assessed the situation. A shamefaced Georgina confessed, ‘Oh no! I forgot to warn her about Rabbie. Poor girl.’ Donald began to experience several strong emotions all at once. On the one hand, he was doing his level best not to laugh out loud, but thought better of it when he saw how pale and obviously shaken Yvonne was; on the other, his heart went out to Rabbie. Poor Rabbie, the dear old boy wouldn’t hurt a fly, and he had probably only called in for his usual titbits and a good old chin rub anyway. Georgina immediately took charge. ‘Do come in Yvonne, come on now. Donald, you’d better get her a brandy.’ Yvonne found herself being firmly led into the lounge and guided to a seat. A small glass of brandy was thrust at her, and not wishing to offend, she sipped it cautiously, grimaced and gave an involuntary shudder. Donald watched her negative reaction to the drink with interest. Recovering, she felt her anxiety levels begin to rise yet again when she noticed The Mad Man in the Heather walk past the windows and heard the vestibule door open. She stared over at him with a mixture of horror and fascination when he came to stand in the lounge doorway. This was really awful, not only had that animal just tried to push her and the telephone box over, but now she began to wonder if it might actually belong to him! Why else would they appear at the same time - and what on earth was he doing, going around the place with such a wild animal? Why couldn’t he get a dog like every other civilised person? He and his dangerous pet should be locked up in a zoo. And why was he looking at her like that - was he actually smirking? Yes, he was! What a cheek! Alexander was indeed trying to prevent his smile from becoming a smirk, but it was proving difficult when his overriding thought was that poetic justice had been done; now they were even. Her embarrassment must surely rate as high as his had been that afternoon when she had walked past him out there, although, magnanimously, he recognised that hers was of a more public nature. ‘Mr and Mrs MacMan? I’m Alexander Grant. I called this morning.’ Yvonne noted that he spoke with an English accent, but then, some Scots did. As usual, it was Georgina who was the first to speak. ‘Oh yes, goodness me! What a way to find us. Please, do come in. And thank you so much for, er, helping Yvonne. Poor girl, nasty shock, but of course, you already know. Still, no real harm done and, er...’ she gave a tiny, dismissive laugh, ‘these things do happen!’ He approached and they shook hands. ‘Pleased to have been of service.’ Then he turned to Yvonne. ‘We meet again, Miss…?’ Yvonne knew that she had to play along and follow the rules of polite society. Making an effort to appear nonchalant, she took his hand and replied, ‘Williams, Yvonne Williams.’ Steel, that was the word that came to her as she looked into his eyes and felt his firm, cool hand in hers. She held his just as firmly in an attempt to convey that she was no shrinking violet, despite the evidence so far. However, this proved almost impossible, for he was observing her with such intensity that all she could do was stare back, perplexed. He made no effort to let go of her hand as he continued his steady gaze. ‘That was quite an experience you just had, Miss Williams.’ He had not expected to see the girl again so soon and decided that there was no harm in looking. A bit young for his liking, and were those eyes green? Yes, definitely green. And he wasn’t one for freckles, but the few she had dotted around her very pink cheeks were kind of cute. His initial assessment of her earlier on that day had been right, she was no great beauty, although very easy on the eye, even with that look of consternation and bewilderment. At last, he released her hand and took his seat. Yvonne felt decidedly uncomfortable as she did her best to regain a modicum of dignity. Georgina had watched the scene closely and thought she could detect some kind of tension between the two apparent strangers. She turned to Donald, but was frustrated to see that his attention was elsewhere as he stood peering out of the windows, and guessed rightly that his whole concern was for that stag again. Ever the diplomat, she gave another dismissive laugh, and said, ‘Er, yes, rather unfortunate timing. We must apologise Yvonne. Donald should have told you that the animal is really quite harmless,’ and then addressing her still non-attentive spouse, added pointedly, ‘Isn’t that right, dear?’ Grateful for the opportunity to defend the honour of his old pal, Donald turned his attention back into the room. ‘Aye, not a nasty bone in his body. He’s a proud old man; probably just wanted a good old rub. You’ll get used to him, Yvonne. He’s a bit of clown, and you’ll find him trying to shove that big head of his through the windows and doors. Trouble with that is he can get his antlers wedged; frightened one old lady near to death in the dining room last year. But most guests take it in good turn and reach for their cameras. He’d stay there all day if there’s any titbits to be had.’ Alexander nodded knowingly. ‘Actually, I’ve come across your illustrious tourist attraction several times when out walking. Seems a harmless enough fellow.’ So, he thought, the girl was going to be here long enough to get used to the stag; obviously not a guest then. Donald was well away now. ‘They love him, and he enjoys all the fuss, especially around the…’ ‘Well, goodness me! Look at the time,’ interrupted Georgina, knowing that her husband was on the verge of launching into one of his full-scale lectures on the wonderful world of Rabbie. ‘What about an aperitif before we eat, Mr Grant, or shall we go straight in?’ Recognising that this was her cue to take her leave, Yvonne stood, and began manoeuvring her way around the table. A smile flickered across Alex’s face. ‘Straight in I think. Going so soon Miss Williams?’ ‘I’ve got one or two things to do,’ she replied, addressing the table, before looking up at Georgina and Donald, and adding, ‘And I’m sorry about all the fuss.’ Then, unsmiling, with her back straight and her head held high, she made herself face The Mad Man in the Heather again. ‘And thank you for…what you did, Mr Grant.’ Her coat had fallen open allowing Alex to see something of her figure. He made a quick scan and liked what he saw. ‘My pleasure, Miss Williams. And I’m sure we’ll…encounter each other again soon.’ Not if I see you first, she thought, attempting to walk with as much dignity as she could out of the room. At any other time or place she would have challenged him about his crazy behaviour that afternoon, but it appeared that he was the guest of the MacMan’s; and goodness knows who, and what, he was! She was only the hired help around here and would have to remember that she was in a strange, wild sort of land now. There could be hundreds of those animals roaming around out there, and maybe even worse. Maybe the man was some sort of hunter, and that was why he had been lurking in the heather. That would make sense, although he couldn’t be much of one with that bad limp of his. And those eyes, hard and searching, they’d suit a hunter alright, not that she knew much about such things - nor did she have any intention of finding out! Chapter 6 Alex had considerable difficulty trying to get Yvonne’s image out of his mind as he and the MacMan’s chatted politely over their soup. ‘It’s good of you to agree to meet with me. I’ve been meaning to call before, but I’ve been a rather preoccupied lately.’ Georgina was immediately on the defensive. It was well known that the Tweedie’s occasional soldier visitor had set his sights on the Manor, and she was keen to discover what his plans were for the place, especially if they could somehow affect the Inn. They already knew something of him from Dot and Angus: he was single, had family down south, and had taken a shine to this part of the world, often spending his leaves in their small bed and breakfast. Dot had been very guarded about the ‘unfortunate accident’ he had suffered, only revealing that it had been almost fatal, and had eventually resulted in a medical discharge. It had come as a nasty shock when they heard about it, and they had not expected to see much more of him from then on, so they were surprised when he had telephoned a few weeks after Hogmanay and asked if he could come and stay for a while. But this was nothing compared to their astonishment when, soon after, he told them that he had submitted a bid for the Manor. Somehow the news had leaked-out, and the rumours and speculations had started immediately, causing many a head to be scratched in puzzlement as to, ‘what a single man could be wanting with such a big barn of a place’. Georgina looked over at Donald. As usual, his attention was elsewhere, and knew it was up to her to get to the bottom of this mystery. She remarked, almost casually, ‘Yes, we did hear something about you putting in a bid for the Manor. Have you heard anything yet?’ There was no disguising the delight in Alex’s voice as he replied, ‘Heard just this morning, our bid’s been successful. We’ve got it!’ ‘We?’ Asked Georgina, assuming that there must be a woman involved somehow. ‘My partners and myself.’ ‘Oh, so you have partners?’ ‘Yes. They’ll be joining me later.’ She looked questioningly at him, obviously expecting to be told more. Alex was happy to oblige, that was the reason he was here after all. ‘Maybe I should explain. We’re planning on opening a convalescent home. Actually, that’s one of the reasons I’ve asked to meet with you. You’re in the business of looking after folk, and I’d really appreciate your advice on one or two matters.’ He paused, noticing a frown appear on her face. At last Donald turned to look at their guest, then at Georgy; she appeared to be on top of things, so he turned back to the window and resumed his scanning. Alex decided to leave him be and concentrate on the little woman, who was definitely on full alert now. ‘You look puzzled, Mrs MacMan?’ ‘Er, well, we naturally assumed that anybody who bought the place would continue to use it as a private home. But another convalescent home! Don’t tell me they’re closing Cairnsbrook House? Oh dear! That will upset a lot of people, and it’s such a lovely place. Isn’t it Donald?’ Donald recognised the keen edge to her voice, and reluctantly shifted his focus inwards as he dutifully replied, ‘Yes dear, lovely.’ Not a good start, thought Alex, and quickly responded, ‘Not that I know of, and our plans have nothing to do with Cairnsbrook House. We intend to be more of a specialist convalescent home.’ Donald perked up noticeably and felt himself sufficiently stirred to ask, ‘“Specialist,” eh? Sounds interesting?’ Georgina’s mind began to work overtime. This ‘specialist’ thing did not sound too good to her. What was the man going to inflict on them: infectious diseases, alcoholics, or - Heaven forbid - drug addicts? This was most disconcerting. ‘“Specialist?”’ she asked, ‘In what way? Only, you’ll understand, the local community has a right to be consulted about such things, and as far as I’m aware, no such consultation has taken place. One has to consider the impact of bringing, er, such people into the area. And to put it frankly, we do have our son to think about.’ Alex was fully prepared for this, as well as the many other such concerns and objections that would, no doubt, be raised before the evening was over. Even Dot and Angus had needed a fair bit of reassurance. ‘Your son?’ he asked. Georgina gave Donald a look, which could only have been described as conspiratorial. He nodded, knowing that it would be almost impossible to stop her anyway. ‘Don’t suppose it’d do any harm. You might as well Georgy.’ Georgina’s voice took on a sharper, more clipped tone as she proceeded. ‘If you insist dear. It’s like this, Mr Grant, Robert, our son, will be taking over here towards the end of the season, and naturally we have a duty to look after his interests.’ She hesitated when she noticed that Donald looked as though he was preparing to say something, however, he was being too slow about it, so she continued. ‘The thing is, he’s discovered a few…er…let’s say, gaps in the market, and he’s extremely keen to explore them. We really bought this place for him several years ago and have just been nursing it along until he’s ready to take over the reins. He got his degree in Hotel and Catering Management last year and is doing some fine-tuning in one of the more prestigious hotels in Invermaden. And, naturally, we’d be concerned about any new concern moving into the area, especially if it affected us here in any way.’ ‘Affected you, in what way? asked Alex. ‘Well, Mr Grant, anyone who knows the area must surely realise that it can only support one hotel.’ ‘Ah, I see! Competition. And please call me Alex. Well, let me put your minds at rest on that score right away. I can’t foresee any way that our two concerns should clash, or have any detrimental effect on each other. In fact, I believe the opposite could prove to be the case.’ Although keen to get on, Alex was beginning to realise that he would have to find a way of allaying any unfounded fears the couple might be having. Then too, his own cause might well be served if they could be softened-up a bit, and it sounded as though this son of theirs might be the key. He went on to ask, ‘But I am rather intrigued to hear about those “gaps” that your son has identified.’ Donald began to feel slightly easier at hearing Alex’s reassurance, for, like Georgina, he too had been starting to feel more than a flicker of concern at hearing something of the man’s plans. He pondered, then decided that it was probably safe to give him a few more details. After all, their own plans were hardly top secret, especially as they had already announced them to the staff earlier that day. ‘Ever heard of the Arts and Crafts Movement?’ he asked. Alex looked at him, his surprise evident. ‘You mean William Morris, Mackintosh…’ ‘That’s the ticket. He developed a passion for such things when he went off to university, and came up with the idea of running Arts and Crafts themed holidays here. You know the kind of thing: talks, sketching, painting, throwing a few pots and so on; give folk some hands-on experience. He’s also a keen amateur ornithologist and hiker, and I’m hoping he’ll include something along those lines as well.’ He had to pause for breath; it had been a long time since he had been able to make such a long speech without being interrupted. He turned and pointed at two prints hanging on the opposite wall. The first was of a golden eagle in full flight, its wings shining bronze against a clear blue sky; the other, a particularly becoming one of Rabbie, standing proud and erect in front of the Inn, a range of purple-blue mountains brooding dramatically in the background. ‘That’s some of his work. I wouldn’t be surprised if he throws in some photography.’ Now that the floodgates had been opened, Georgina felt duty-bound to rush in. ‘But I liked that Scottish literature idea. Did you know, Mr Grant, that Arthur Conan Doyle was Scottish? And that Whisky Galore was based on real events from up this way? And I’d like to think that there was a real Monarch of The Glen; I’m sure there’s still quite a few of those old patriarchal types around. Have you read it? Such an entertaining book, so amusing; I’ve read it several times. It always cheers me up! And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how popular Gavin Maxwell’s The Ring of Bright Water is.’ Then her animated expression quickly turned to one of almost disapproval. ‘But I’m not one for poetry; personally I don’t care for it. Give me a good book any day.’ Donald looked mildly affronted. ‘No Georgy, I keep telling you, it really touches some folk. And in these surroundings,’ he made a long sweep of his arm to take in the view outside, ‘it would be criminal to ignore our famous bards.’ Turning to Alex again, he continued, ‘I suggested he should combine it with some sessions on the local flora and fauna, maybe a bit of flower arranging; that would pep things up.’ ‘Oh Donald!’ exclaimed his exasperated spouse, ‘so tame. Can you honestly see the Maxwell’s going for that kind of thing?’ Addressing Alex, she explained, ‘They’re a large family group that come for the Easter weekend every year. A lively lot, and far more interested in taking long hikes than listening to endless dirges about bonnie bluebells! And Robert knows that; he’s got far more sense than to try to interfere with their routine.’ Alex sipped his fruit juice. It was obvious that they were on the verge of launching into an already much rehearsed family disagreement, and decided that the time had come for him to intervene if they were to get anywhere. He hoped that that son of theirs would have enough gumption to do whatever he wanted to do, and that these two would leave him alone to get on with it. Placing his empty glass on the table, he replied, ‘Really? All Scottish you say? I didn’t know that. And I’ve got to say, it sounds like your son’s got his head screwed-on; and the fact that he’s prepared to spread his net pretty wide should help.’ They were silent for a few moments as the main course arrived. Then he continued, ‘You know, one or two of those activities you mentioned might have a therapeutic aspect to them and could well be of interest to some of our guests.’ There was no doubt now that he had gained their full attention. He quickly shot a silent arrow prayer Heavenwards: Here goes Boss, please let them accept what I have to say with understanding and without prejudice. Georgina looked askance and leant forward holding her fork, precariously laden with a small mound of garden peas, over her plate. ‘Oh? But I really can’t imagine that any of your...patients could have any interest in any cultural activity that we hold here. Surely convalescing people need peace and quiet?’ She popped the fork’s contents into her mouth with one precise movement, and then added reproachfully, ‘And, to be frank with you, Mr Grant, our guests might feel rather awkward having to rub shoulders with people who’ve got some…well, to put it bluntly, antisocial problems.’ Alex smiled patiently at her, recognising that, at last, the time had come for him to explain what the real purpose of Breagarroch Manor was going to be. ‘Now then, Mrs MacMan, and it’s Alex remember, it might help if you would allow me to tell you a bit about myself, and explain why many of our guests will have similar stories. And by the way, we shan’t be referring to them as “patients”; just guests.’ Georgina frowned, and asked, ‘“Similar stories”?’ ‘Yes ma’am. You see, the Army was my life. I was a career soldier - until this happened,’ he slapped his thigh, ‘and I ended up being given a medical discharge. Then I had to regroup - think again. My original plan was to start my own outward bound centre when my contract was up, but obviously that wasn’t going to happen. The unfortunate thing was that I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I was out of a job, handicapped, and clean out of ideas.’ This was a sorry tale. And now Georgina found it necessary to be on her guard against the heady combination of the man’s sad story and his good looks, for she had decided that he was indeed rather handsome. Glancing at Donald, she recognised that his whole demeanour was one of sympathy, and knew it would never do for them both to get carried away. ‘Oh dear! How very unfortunate. But didn’t the Army try and sort something out for you? And what about your family? Weren’t they able to help you in some way?’ Alex nodded. ‘No, there was no official help, especially of the type I needed. And my family was very supportive, although there was only so much they could do. After a while I came to the conclusion that it was down to me; it was time to take the pressure off and let everyone else get on with their lives.’ How could he tell them how bleak and utterly lost he had felt lying in that hospital bed, month after endless, painful and hopeless month? For over twenty years he had lived by the steel-hard military rule. Excellence, or at the very least, success, had been the only results he would accept, and he had needed them like he needed his daily bread and butter. Then, in one explosive, hellish moment, his whole life had been blown into kingdom come. The lower half of his once perfect body had been shattered, and what remained had been refashioned into an unsightly and scarred collection of flesh and bone. The whole, fully functional and confident person he had once been was gone forever. Cancelled out. Eliminated. And then Charles had entered his life, or to be more accurate, had been brought into his life, and it was he who had encouraged him to think about a change of scenery. Somehow the idea had taken root, and it was not long afterwards that he had picked-up the telephone and made that long-distance call to Dot and Angus. Chapter 7 Alex genuinely enjoyed the meal and was generous with his compliments. He had gained a fair idea of how the land lay, and came to the conclusion that the couple had always inhabited a comfortable and secure world, albeit hardworking. His main task now was to help them to understand something of the experiences and needs of those who had lived very different lives, and in particular, those who found themselves back in the almost alien civilian world many had left behind as just youngsters years before. He began, ‘You’re probably aware that I’ve spent some of my leaves with the Tweedie’s, and that I came up for another stay soon after Hogmanay?’ Two heads nodded. ‘Well, to cut a long story short, that turned out to be the best thing I could have done.’ Then, appearing to change the subject, surprised them by asking, ‘What lot were you in during the war Donald?’ There was such a note of authority in his voice that Donald found himself involuntarily sitting upright. A series of unbidden, unhappy memories of the years he had endured trying to put as much distance between himself and some power-crazed N.C.O.’s flashed across his mind. His reply, when it came, sounded as dismal as the expression he now wore on his face. ‘Army. Cook in the Service Corps. And I don’t mind telling you, a complete waste of six years of my life.’ ‘And what happened when you were demobbed? Did you have a plan, something to fall back on? Or did you just hope for the best, and drift into the first job that came your way? I have my reasons for asking.’ ‘Oh, I knew exactly what I wanted to do alright! No offence to you, but I couldn’t stand the life and just wanted to get back to my real one. Georgy kept the hotel going - we owned a small one in Edinburgh then.’ He paused and began nodding, looking the picture of dejection. ‘Not a good time for either of us.’ ‘I see,’ said Alex, attempting to sound understanding and even sympathetic, ‘but knowing what you wanted to do afterwards, and having someone waiting for you back home, that must have given you some comfort?’ ‘You can say that again! They were the only things that kept me going.’ ‘And I’m guessing that you rubbed shoulders with some who didn’t? No one and nothing to go back to when it was all over?’ Donald’s shoulders gradually returned to their usual relaxed position as he considered the question, his meal forgotten. ‘Y-e-s. Hard to remember after all this time, but there were some like me, just marking time till being demobbed. Other blokes just sat around drinking their pay away. Poor devils! Couldn’t see further than the bottom of the next bottle.’ ‘I’m afraid that’s often the case, even today. But there’s plenty of others, like you, who think ahead. Which brings us back to the type of work we’ll be doing at the Manor. It’ll be mainly with those who are getting on a bit by the time they’re discharged, or out sooner than they’d bargained for. If there’s no one and nothing to go back to, they soon begin to miss the life, especially the camaraderie. So I guess it’s easy to see how they can end up propping-up the bar of their local ex-servicemen’s club.’ He paused and added thoughtfully, looking down at his leg, ‘Easy enough thing to do, especially when you’ve come to the end of your own resources, which I had. And it was at that point that I found myself confronted with a choice. To cut a long story short, you’ve probably heard the saying, “Let go and let God”?’ Two faces stared back at him, neither knowing exactly how to respond. ‘Well, that’s precisely what I did. I began to look seriously into the Christian Faith, and no one could have been more surprised than me when I found it starting to make some kind of sense.’ ‘Ah, now then!’ exclaimed Donald, attempting to quickly empty his mouth so that he could enquire further. However, Georgina was at a loss to see where all this retrospection could be leading, and feeling the need to bring the conversation back down-to-earth, asked, ‘Well, of course, we know what you mean about that drinking problem. That’s something we’ve always been very careful about, and we’ve always been strict about not allowing any such behaviour in any of our establishments. No one likes having a drunk around the place, but there’s no harm at all in enjoying a few sociable drinks in pleasant company.’ ‘I’m delighted to hear it, Georgina, and it’s a crying shame that other licensees don’t follow your example,’ said Alex, determined not to allow the conversation to be led off course. ‘But getting back to when I came to stop with the Tweedie’s - it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. There’s something about this area: the peace, its separateness, so much space and sheer beauty. All I can tell you is that I feel very close to God here.’ He ignored the small sigh that escaped from Georgina, but was pleased to notice that Donald appeared to be becoming more interested. Georgina was remembering that Dot had mentioned something about how religious ‘their soldier’ had become, and knowing how those types did like to harp on, she decided to quickly intervene. ‘Er, yes, it is lovely around here, and you must have some impressive views from the Manor? And are you ready for some dessert?’ ‘No thank you,’ replied Alex, ‘and yes, pretty special. Anyway, I got to wondering, what if it could have the same restorative type of effect on others that it had, and still has, on me? Then I heard that the Manor was up for sale, and - eureka! - the idea struck. What if I could get hold of it and try to create...’ he paused to look around him, ‘I suppose, something like you’ve got here, a comfortable, friendly type of atmosphere, but with some kind of structured routine to the day? There could be some counselling and career advice on offer, maybe excursions and other recreational type of activities, things to help take people’s minds off themselves for a bit. I reckon it could work.’ ‘Really?’ exclaimed Donald, whose eyebrows now appeared to have become fixed in the raised position. ‘My word! How interesting. You know, I’ve just had an idea - that is if you don’t mind me making a suggestion - have you thought about keeping some animals? You know, caring for them? Might go down well, looking after the needs of others and all that. That would definitely help take peoples’ minds off things.’ Of course, he was thinking of Rabbie. There might be something there for him, after all, the dear old boy was aging fast, and who knows what would become of him when he wasn’t around to keep an eye on him anymore. Georgina appeared not to have heard this last exchange; she wanted to get back to the thorny issue of those heavy drinkers. ‘Donald, why don’t you pop in and tell Niall we’re ready for coffee. I think we’ll have it in the lounge. Come along now, Mr…Alex,’ she instructed, standing and leading the way. Donald obeyed. Heading for the kitchen door, he turned to say over his shoulder, ‘You’ll let me know if anything like that does come off, won’t you Alex?’ ‘Of course.’ Georgina lost no time in picking-up the drinking strand of the conversation again once they were settled. ‘But why should you get involved with people with drink problems? Why can’t you leave all that sort of thing to the A.A?’ ‘Right, well, drinking won’t be the main issue for most. And, by the way, alcohol won’t be allowed on the premises. Our main aim will in providing a place where people can come and think, a sort of retreat; help them to step out of their lives for a bit. Some may have physical problems, but they won’t need much in the way of nursing care by the time they get to us. We’ll be looking for ways to help them to come to terms with what’s happened to them, and then encourage them to consider their options. Ideally, we’d like to try and give them some hope and purpose before sending them back into life, but armed with a realistic action plan.’ However, this explanation still did not satisfy Georgina. She pursed her lips and frowned heavily. All this talk about ‘retreats’ and ‘getting away’ from life was far too airy-fairy for her liking. And now she needed to find out what those ‘physical problems’ were all about. There was no mistaking the disapproval in her voice as she asked, ‘And these “physical problems”, I take it then, that these people will have been...what...wounded, like you? In the line of duty?’ Alex shrugged and tried to sound matter-of-fact as he replied, ‘There might be the odd one, but our main emphasis will be…’ ‘Oh! So you will be having some then?’ she interrupted. ‘Don’t tell me you’ll be bringing shell-shocked cases here? Oh dear! We know all about things like that. Personally, I can’t understand why they can’t just pull themselves together, and get over it. And to inflict that sort of thing on the local community! It could be very disconcerting to suddenly find such a…a deranged person on the loose amongst us.’ Donald was beginning to feel very uncomfortable at his wife’s unsympathetic remarks, and said, placatingly, ‘Oh, come on Georgy, that’s a bit rough.’ She bristled. ‘Well it’s okay for you men, but it’s us women who have to bear the brunt of it. Remember Fred? You weren’t there a lot of the time when I had to deal with him. Behaved like a scalded cat every time there was the slightest noise. I’ll never forget all fuss and commotions he caused; most embarrassing.’ Addressing Alex, she explained, ‘Fred was our porter in Edinburgh, and gave us some very awkward moments, I can tell you!’ Alex nodded knowingly. ‘Don’t worry, all our guests will have been through the system and medically cleared before they get to us. We’ll be more concerned about their spiritual well-being. Only those who’ve been vetted and are genuinely keen to think about where they’re going in life will be referred to us.’ Then, unexpectedly, the image of the eye-catching, sunlit corona around a certain young woman’s head came into his mind. ‘There may be a few who wander around talking to themselves, but don’t we all at times? I don’t know about you, but I certainly do when I’ve got a problem I’m trying to think through. In fact, I often pray out loud when I’m alone; doesn’t mean to say that I’m mad, or disturbed.’ He paused, hoping that this off-the-cuff explanation would neutralise any negative comments that that same young woman might have made to the couple about their encounter, just a few hours before. Georgina, knowing herself to be an habitual self-conversationalist - although certainly not as bad as Flora - stubbornly refused to be mollified, and went on to ask, ‘So, you will be taking in such…cases?’ For some minutes Alex had been feeling that he was in an interview situation. Georgina MacMan was letting him know, in no uncertain terms, that anything and everything he was planning to do anywhere near the Inn would have to be met with her approval. Nevertheless, he went on to patiently explain, ‘We prefer not to think of our guests as “cases”, and there may be the odd one or two. But it’s like I said, they’d have been treated and stabilised before they come to us.’ Donald had been peering up at the ceiling, and now seemed to find written there the answer to a riddle he had been puzzling over. ‘Ah, I think I’m getting your drift. You’ll be taking in people who’ve got themselves into a bit of a state…and need a helping hand to adjust to life back in Civvy Street. That’s about right, isn’t it?’ Alex felt a wave of relief; at last one of the pair had finally got the message, or at least part of it. ‘Exactly. Only there’ll be another very important aspect to the care we’ll be offering. For some, it will be more of a retreat. We want to help people who’ve come to the end of their own resources and realise that they need something, or more importantly - Someone - to help them. At some point in our lives we all need to take God seriously and acknowledge our need of Him.’ He paused for effect, then added, ‘Before we meet Him.’ The thought of meeting God somehow bounced off Georgina, who now found herself starting to become concerned about the unpleasant prospect of having some religious fanatics around the place. ‘Er…when you say “‘retreat”, you’re not talking about starting up one of those dreadful hippy kibbutzes are you? Oh dear! Heaven help us!’ Alex knew that this was exactly how the Manor and its ministry could appear to the locals, and was about to reassure her, but before he could utter a word, Donald broke in. ‘No, no, Georgy, calm down! You’ve got it all wrong. Try and imagine something along the lines of a…a toned-down military kind of monastery.’ Pleased with himself, he gave Alex a self-satisfied, man-to-man smile.’ Alex smiled widely back, amused at Donald’s description, and stored it away to share with Charles and Izzy later. ‘Almost, Donald. Just try to think of it as another convalescent home, only one with Christian counsellors and career advisors on-board, then you’ll get the idea.’ Georgina felt her panic subside slightly, but only slightly. Thank goodness there were to be no pot-smoking layabouts wafting around the place! But, just to be on the safe side, she went on to ask, ‘And where will these counsellors come from?’ ‘All the mainline denominations: Church of England, and Scotland of course, Methodist, Baptist, United Reformed, Pentecostal. The usual. We’ve already got several civilian ministers and counsellors signed-up, as well as quite a few retired padres, many of whom would have gone through similar experiences to our guests and will be able to talk their language. It seems that the chance to spend a few weeks in the Highlands is proving very appealing.’ ‘Ah, so, normal vicars then, nothing highfalutin?’ asked Donald, who had been imagining clusters of purple and scarlet-robed bishops, chanting and drifting eerily around the loch. ‘All very normal, I can assure you,’ confirmed Alex. The whole scheme sounded fascinating to Donald and he was keen to hear more. He promised himself there and then that he would pay the Manor a visit as soon as it was up and running. Georgina began to wonder if the place might prove to be harmless after all. But one could never be sure, so just to be on the safe side, went on to enquire, ‘And does that mean that you’ll have professionals involved; experienced people, good at dealing with… such matters?’ ‘Very professional, extremely experienced. One or two are actually quite well-known.’ This was no exaggeration; Charles was already in discussion with two such popular conference speakers who had declared themselves interested in the project. Now it was Georgina’s eyebrows that were raised. ‘Really?’ Alex continued, ‘That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to see you tonight, to ask if you’d be willing to put the odd one up from time to time, especially if we find ourselves pushed for space.’ Her eyes lit up. She was thinking quickly now, and wondered if this might actually turn out to be something of a coup. After all, it wasn’t every establishment that could boast about having well-known guests under their roof. Robert would be pleased. ‘Well, we might consider having the odd one or two, if we’re not too stretched.’ Donald’s gaze shifted to the walking stick hooked onto the back of Alex’s chair. ‘Do you mind telling us what you’ll be doing in all this, that is, if you don’t mind?’ ‘Not at all. My role will be mainly logistical, working in the background - more as a facilitator. It’ll be my job to make sure the place runs smoothly and everyone has everything they need. There’ll be a medical officer and trained nurse permanently on-site to handle the official side of things.’ Smiling, he looked directly at Georgina, and added, ‘Everything will be done by the book, but with a bit of imagination; a bit like it sounds your son wants to do here.’ ‘I see,’ she said, deciding that this man certainly had all the answers when it came to all the airy-fairy stuff, but now she was curious to find out what plans he had made about the more important, down to earth matters. ‘So you’ll be responsible for the staff then? I hope you’re prepared; it’s an onerous task you know, running an establishment and catering for people’s needs. You’ll find it hard to find an experienced cook and other staff around here. We’re lucky to have Flora and Niall, but we had to search further afield to find Yvonne; she came to us from King’s Lynn of all places!’ Alex found himself more than a little interested to learn this piece of information about Yvonne Williams, which was something he would certainly have to think about later. ‘The staffing’s all organised, but I would value your advice on one or two other matters: reliable wholesale suppliers, milk deliveries, window cleaners, laundries, any special arrangements about refuse collection, things like that.’ Now these were things that Georgina had a wealth of experience about, and relieved that all the talk about feeble minded people wanting religion was over, she replied enthusiastically, ‘Yes, of course! I’d be delighted. You’ve come to the right place.’ * By the time he pulled away from the Inn, a well-worn copy of The Monarch of The Glen on the passenger seat beside him, Alex decided that things had gone far better than he could have hoped. But then, he had prayed. It had been a bit tricky for a while, but thankfully the couple’s initial cautious reaction to the idea of the Manor appeared to have been replaced with one of enthusiastic acceptance by the one, and a tacit acceptance by the other. He considered again how easy it could be for him to be misunderstood; Charles had been dead right when he had warned that he might be seen as some sort of eccentric religious fanatic. But protecting his own reputation was infinitely less important than that of the Manor; it could cause all sorts of problems if the place started life on any potentially harmful footing. For the venture to succeed, apart from The Boss’s Hand on it, it would need the goodwill of the local community, including that of one of its nearest neighbours - the Tananeach Inn. At the moment, he would have to conclude that the evening’s mission had been a success; a small but significant sign had been when Georgina had started to use his Christian name, and their invitation to attend the next ceilidh had sounded genuine enough. No doubt Miss Yvonne Williams would be there - Miss Williams from King’s Lynn. Now that was a long way to come to work in a hotel; might there be a bit of a mystery there? Maybe he should think about going to the ceilidh; he wouldn’t mind taking another look at her. Chapter 8 Yvonne knocked on the office door at exactly nine o’clock the following morning. ‘Come in,’ trilled a voice from inside. ‘Ah, there you are Yvonne. Close the door; it’s none too warm in here yet.’ Georgina looked tired, but managed to smile as she pointed to a chair on the other side of an enormous desk. ‘That’s your spot.’ ‘Good morning Mrs MacMan.’ Yvonne glanced around as she took her seat. The room appeared to be as neat and organised as its owner. ‘First things first.’ Georgina reached over and handed her two copies of the Job Description she had spent a considerable amount of time on some days before. ‘Read through this and sign both copies; you can keep one for yourself.’ This was a new experience for Yvonne, who had never before been offered one of these documents. She read the long list of requirements, and her doubts about being kept fully occupied in this place melted away. She signed both copies then handed one back. ‘No questions?’ Asked Georgina, quietly relieved not to have been challenged, as she slid the item into one of the drawers on her side of the desk. ‘No, but I’ll ask if anything does crop up.’ ‘Good, good, good. Well now, that’s out of the way, let’s see what your typing’s like.’ The next hour flew past, leaving Georgina more than happy with the young woman who appeared to be able to quickly grasp what was required of her and perform each task to a very satisfactory standard. * Georgina yawned daintily into her hand as she poured her second cup of coffee. Due to Niall’s absence, this morning’s gathering was a far more relaxed affair than that of the previous day. Yvonne learned that it was his day off, and, as was his habit, he had skipped breakfast and hitched a lift into Braegarroch. She wondered what he would find to do all day in such a tiny place. Georgina yawned again. ‘Do excuse me. It took me ages to drop off last night. I couldn’t stop thinking about all that business up at the Manor.’ A large hole appeared in Donald’s beard as he yawned back. ‘Me too. Mind you, I liked the man; got a feeling he’ll shake the place up a bit.’ ‘Shake the place up? Oh dear, I hope not!’ exclaimed Georgina. ‘Let’s hope he really does know what he’s doing and can keep a tight rein on things.’ Flora, who had known all about Alex’s proposed plans for several weeks, added, ‘Aye, but Dot and Angus thinks he’s the sort who’ll do just fine.’ ‘Oh, so you knew all about it then, Flora?’ asked Georgina indignantly. ‘I wish you’d have told us what he was up to. Poor Donald had quite a nasty shock!’ Looking mildly affronted, Flora quickly responded, ‘Och, away with you Mrs Mac! There’s nothing for you to be fretting yourself about, and I’m sure it wasn’t my place to be doing any such thing.’ ‘And I wasn’t shocked, dear,’ said Donald, ‘just a tad surprised. He’s taking on quite a challenge there, especially with that leg of his. But I can’t see him putting up with any nonsense; doesn’t seem the type.’ Trying to sound unconcerned, although quite keen to hear exactly what it was that might need keeping ‘a tight rein’ over, Yvonne asked, ‘Are you talking about your guest last night?’ ‘That’s right,’ replied Georgina, ‘and would I be right in thinking that you two have already met?’ ‘No…well, yes…that is, I passed him when I went out for a walk yesterday.’ Yvonne could have taken the opportunity to comment about his peculiar behaviour, but somehow felt it would be wrong - although as to why, she had no idea, and reminded herself to ask Flora about him later on. Feeling her feminine intuition cranking up a gear, Georgina sipped her coffee, and quietly agreed with herself that there had definitely been some sort of connection between those two, and she would do well to watch points there. ‘Apparently he likes taking long walks, but I don’t expect he’ll have much time for that when things get going,’ explained Donald, who then went on to give a short summary of the previous evening’s meeting. And so Yvonne learned that Alexander Grant, alias The Mad Man in the Heather, was lodging with one of Hamish’s cousins, that he regularly attended the local kirk, had family down south, and was single. As a result, she came to the conclusion that her initial impression of him might need some adjustment; now it appeared that he was, in fact, a rather caring, sensitive individual, even a bit of a Good Samaritan. Maybe she should start thinking of him as The…Man in the Heather from now on, and miss out the Mad bit. But then, why should she even bother? What did it matter to her what type of man he was, mad or otherwise? Donald finished with his belief, that, ‘There’s always been a crying need for such a place,’ and that, he, for one, ‘was jolly glad to know that someone was finally going to do something about it!’ Georgina knew that Donald’s soft nature had been touched, however, she would not allow herself to be so easily swayed. Alexander’s reassurances had diminished in her mind overnight, and only time would tell what impact having such people living nearby would have upon them all. If Robert’s plans succeeded, the last thing he needed would be the emotionally disturbed running amok around the area and upsetting the guests. ‘Well dear, we shall just have to wait and see, won’t we?’ she said. ‘Time will tell. And gracious me, talking of time, Yvonne, we’d better be getting back to the office.’ * The rest of the day passed pleasantly enough. Georgina kept Yvonne busy, but there were times when she had a few moment’s lull between jobs. During these times, and despite repeated attempts to shrug off the whole notion of Alexander Grant, curious thoughts about him would keep popping uninvited into her mind. At five o’clock, she slowly climbed the stairs to her room. If Georgina’s thanks had been anything to go by, then she had done her work well. She stretched and yawned. The air was different here, the water too. It would take her a few more days to acclimatise, but she had a feeling that she was really going to like it. She appreciated her room, and had every reason to believe that she would find the job enjoyable - certainly not boring. The Inn had a sort of homely feel about it, and she was looking forward to discovering more about the area. And she and Rabbie might even become good friends! If this wholesome, quiet and remote place wanted to wrap itself around her, then she wasn’t about to complain. The only fly in the ointment was Niall, but if that problem could be resolved, then this might well turn out to be the place she had been looking for all this long, long time. Of course, there was that peculiar Alexander Grant lurking in the background. Now why on earth should she be thinking of him again? Chapter 9 It was early morning when Alex silently eased the car away from Rosedale Croft, having already said his farewells to Dot and Angus the night before. His best suit lay across the back seat, along with the briefcase containing his speech and plans for the Manor. He had worked hard on them both, especially his speech, which he hoped would do justice to Charles and Izzy’s special day. He had been looking forward to making this trip for some time and relaxed back into his seat, enjoying the freedom of the empty road and the fine scenery. Angus had assured him that the fair weather would hold, which was just as well, considering the challenging three and a half hour drive ahead.


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