Sam slowly shook his head. His silence coupled with the highly familiar ‘we’re all doomed’ pose as he scrutinized her recently acquired little sea blue Golf was driving Nish crazy. It could be quite maddening how getting any clear statement out of him was like pulling teeth, and she sure was no dentist. To be fair, though, she also knew that he was not keen on expressions of dismay about bad news. Which it looked like she was going to get any minute now.
‘What do you think?’ she said finally when the tension got to her. ‘Is it serious . . ?’
‘I think it’s the suspension. Looks like it’s had it.‘
Nish sank onto the garden wall. ‘That’ll cost another fortune, won’t it?’
‘Well,’ Sam was trying to get his piece in before Nish had time to collapse completely. ‘I know it sounds bad . . .’
Sounds bad? Are you kidding? But she couldn’t say it, it would be too ungrateful with him being there and helping out, she wouldn’t have known what to do without him. If it wasn’t for Sam she’d been kicking and screaming already.
She needed her car. It was not just a means of transport, it was survival. Despite the fact that she hardly ever left the Highlands she had to do the equivalent mileage of a trip around the world at least once in the course of a year in order to keep her sanity.
‘Tell you what,’ Sam said, ‘I have this friend called Matt who runs a workshop. I think we had best take the car across to him, he’ll let me put it on the ramp there and I can check it out properly.’
‘Ah . . . ’ said Nish, not really listening. Far away with her thoughts she added, ‘I bought this car because I thought the other one was bad . . . ’
‘Well, it was dead, wasn’t it?’
‘Yeah, I suppose. But it was great when it worked.’
‘Yes, Nish, they usually are.’
‘Am I talking rubbish?’
‘Hm,’ said Sam. ‘I hate to say it, but . . . have you had too many green things recently?’
‘No, not really. I was too busy freaking out . . .’
‘Are they still in the veggie boxes then?’
‘Of course they are. I was told that that’s where the green stuff is supposed to be kept, so in they went.’
‘Well, they are definitely green. Grolsch, Stella, Beck’s, the whole lot…’
‘So how about some nosh, Nish?’
She looked him up and down, half a grin appearing on her face, car trouble temporarily forgotten. ‘Looks like you ain’t got the dosh for a dish . . .!’ she teased back.
‘Ouch, that was bad!’ Sam pulled a face. ‘That was even worse than usual. . .’
Nish showed no pity. ‘You started it, even though you ought to know better. Anyway, you’re invited if you can stand pizza again . . .’
‘I would not expect anything else. What is it you call yourself again? A badgeress?’
‘A batchelorette. Now stop winding me up and give this Matt guy a ring. I’ll go get the food ready.’
It had truly been a stressful day. Normally Nish’s way to cope with that would have been what she called a bath ceremony. Masses of candles, aromatic oils, pampering music, afterwards a good film perhaps and then off to bed. Her very own kingsize bed all to herself, no one’s snoring to endure, no duvet-stealing or any of those other lovely surprises; just never ending space and peaceful, divine sleep. How it could have taken so long for her to realise that paradise was right at her fingertips was an utter mystery . . .
And so far, all worries had dissolved in this treatment. This time, though, there was one thought that stubbornly refused to go away: that as of today, her safe, self-made heaven might have joined the endangered areas zone . . .
After their lunch, Nish had followed Sam obediently the twenty something miles to Matt’s workshop, where they put the vehicle on the ramp.
Matt looked at the car and set to work. Nish looked at Matt and was gone. Her vision went into instant overdrive, while all her other senses shut down on the spot. Scenes of Hebridean skies, velvet hillsides, and ocean blue-greens took her straight out of the workshop, sending her soaring into she didn’t know where. She could call herself lucky having Sam with her, who had taken it on to sort things out, doing all the talking and inquiring because she would not have been able to follow.
Matt had worked for just a little over an hour to fix the Golf. It took him less than five minutes, however, to wreck Nish totally and utterly, and that didn’t require much effort from his side at all; so little in fact, that he never even noticed.
He was like a full trip round the Highlands. Stratherrick just after the sun had gone; the sweeping patterns of the hillsides in Glen Docherty; Beltane, at four in the morning on Dunnet Head; old fishing boats resting on the shore at Achiltibuie after a long night at sea; the Sound of Sleat on a hot summer’s day . . . all in one face. How could all this be in just one face . . .
‘ . . . so it shouldn’t give you any more trouble now.’ Matt had turned and looked at her reassuringly. ‘If it does, let me know . . .’
Nish shook herself slightly and blinked several times in an effort to kick her brains into gear, tried to nod in all the right places. Hopeless.
‘ . . . ‘you all right?’ asked Sam as they were leaving.
‘Oh, yeah . . . um, sure . . . ‘ Nish had not quite retrieved her capacity of speech yet. ‘Um, thanks for your help . . . ’
‘Sam drove off, and so did I,’ she said later to her friend Gabrielle, on whose couch she was sitting flopped out with a large cappuccino, trying to get her head round the unexpected afternoon.
‘The problem was,’ she continued, ‘that in my confusion I’d taken a left turn and just a few hundred yards down the road I saw Matt on his way to do the day’s banking.’
‘He didn’t notice you, though, did he?’
‘Oh, did he not. Turned his head as I drove past.’
‘And did you clock that one?’
‘ ’Course. Classic fairytale case: Don’t respond or you’ll land yourself in exactly that kind of trouble that only a green unicorn with a silver hoof or a blue patch on his shoulder can help you out of.’
‘ . . . and where would you find one of those anywhere near there?’ Gabrielle winked.
‘However,’ her friend pointed out, ‘correct me if I’m wrong, but, apart from the silver hoof, is that not a familiar colour scheme with a certain workshop company that we have had close contact with?’
Nish stared at her for a moment. ‘Ha!’ she shouted and slapped her forehead. ‘You’re right! You should be a detective or something. Then again, may just be the brilliance of my subconscious mind telling me . . . something . . .’
‘Ha ha,’ said Gabs.
‘I know . . . Anyway – with great strength of mind and superhuman determination, I ignored him.’
‘Because if you hadn’t,’ Gabrielle said, ‘you would have had to wave.’
‘If I had waved, I would have stopped . . .’
‘And,’ Gabrielle started to laugh, ‘if you had stopped, there might have been just the smidgeon of a chance -‘
‘Throw him into the car and dash off into the sunset . . !’
‘Ah-hah . . . So what did you really do?’
‘I did the boring adult, responsible stuff . . . Hesitated, slowed down, considered again. Once I was out of sight, of course.’
‘And – ?’ Gabrielle asked, eyebrows raised.
‘I am quoting a really wise person here, namely myself, who came to the conclusion “Nay, definitely not a good idea”.’
‘What a shame . . .’
‘Aye, right. You can get done for abduction, you know!’
‘In that case, we do a Speed King . . .’
‘Foot on the pedal and ‘vroom’ out of town.’ Nish shrugged. ‘And you know what? Never even occurred to me to check his hands . . .’ She wrinkled her forehead. ‘Which one is it anyway? Left or right? I can never remember . . .’
‘Left,’ replied Gabrielle. ‘I think . . .’ She got up and grabbed the mugs. ‘Another cuppa?’
‘Desperate for one,’ Nish winked and they both simultaneously burst out laughing.
‘So what is it about him then?’ Gabrielle called from the kitchen as she put the kettle on.
Nish gave a vague shrug. ‘Not quite sure yet, Gabs. He’s a wee bit like my old car, the Astra, you know the one with the leaky tank – ?’
Gabrielle giggled. ‘Now there’s a compliment. I’m sure that’s the sweetest thing anybody has ever said about him!’
‘Oh, why do I bother . . .’ grumbled Nish, reaching for her mug. But her eyes said it anyway. Nice, comfortable, familiar and yet with a potential for unlimited adventure . . .
‘This is the problem,’ Matt said on Nish’s second visit, drawing a quick sketch of an exhaust (funny how the Golf had suddenly developed another fault). ‘The two parts are rusty where they come together, but there might be a way of repairing this. I’ll see what I can do.’
He was, too, like her old Astra with the leaky tank, she thought defiantly, only much better, of course, because kindness instead of petrol was oozing out of him all over the place.
Maybe he was Glen Loth. The tranquil feeling of the deserted valley, hillsides undulating as far as your fuel would reach; everything an invitation to step into the unknown. She’d only ever been there in January, though, and January felt wrong somehow. It had to be summer, otherwise the colours wouldn’t be right. But hold on – sleeping grass and sedges… what would she put in her palette to get that? Greens, greys, amber… a hint of blue perhaps?
This time, at last, she had remembered to check. There was a thin circle of untanned skin barely perceptible on the crucial finger of his left hand – or was it the right one? Oh, how on earth had she ever managed to get a driving licence?
She turned to go home, but headed off again as soon as she got there, drove all the way back and then a few miles further on to question Sam.
‘Been together for years,’ he said.
‘Too much time in the workshop though, I should think.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘Suntan reaches exactly to his collar line . . .’
‘O-och,’ said Sam, as if he had burnt himself on the stove. ‘His collar line should be of no concern to you at all, dear,’ he added with a stern look on his face. ‘Anyway, things are often more complex than they seem –’
‘ . . .and often much more simple, too. Come on, Sam, stop showing your age. No waffling – cards on the table time, straight dope.’
‘Okay, you’ve asked for it.’ He took out his tobacco and rolled himself another fag. Then he flicked open his lighter, lit the cigarette and inhaled, watched it burn, slowly, thoughtfully. The room had gone very quiet.
After what seemed like a very long time he blew out some smoke and said, ‘Sooner or later the ring will be back again, that’s my guess.’
‘. . . and a pretty good one,’ sighed Nish. ‘That’s mine.’
Later on that evening Nish went to Cromarty. She sat looking out across the firth, poring over the contents of her heart as if it was a pack of cards and pondered, diving deep into the shape of things, because you cannot let go of feelings until you have fully felt them.
And so she died in the sunset.
But life is, is, and as she was breathed in by the soft ethereal moments before, so was she breathed out again afterwards, reborn in the shushing surf of liquid skies that reminded her: Don’t think small; don’t cling to narrow feelings.
A Friend is a Treasure Fit for a King.
Loch Coruisk, she thought. Cradled in the palm of the Cuillins, all infinite calm and patience, with a power that could just about blow your brains out, gabbro melt-down in point five seconds on a good day. Jagged edges, breathtaking and dramatic, perhaps at the same time working as bye-the-bye reminders of how spiky things can get if you cross the border to the wrong side of… well… common sense ?… purpose?
Stay with your integrity. Stand tall up on the ridge, trusting you will know the way down when you need it. Free-fall into your true self. Write names, sky high, if you want, and sing, LOUD.
Who could contain anything like this in a whisper.
‘You know you asked for this, don’t you…’ Gabs said soon after that with one of her very own wicked grins.
‘Well, don’t you remember that day when every single guy we saw, especially those driving past in their cars, had looked absolutely irresistible?’
Ah, that one…. right… Nish had a dim recollection of alarm bells shrieking about sky-rocketing hormones and other traps. It was true, she had indeed found herself saying, oh please, it’s been a while since someone has brightened up my life in that way…. Just a little crush or something, would that be possible? The only trouble being, of course, that she didn’t do ‘little crushes’. Her style had always been ‘River Deep, Mountain High’.
For her, it had to be Kingsize . . .
‘It’s nice to have a bit of star light in your life,’ she declared, with a touch of the defensiveness. ‘On the other hand, I have lived without a good man for a long time. I can do it, and quite happily, we both know that.’ She frowned and then, with a sudden flash of realisation, sat bolt upright. ‘Hah,’ she shouted. ‘It’s not me that’s got the problem, it’s my car! The Golf can’t live without him!’
And so, just before one in the morning, as Nish groped her way back to the car, the following words may or may not have been heard out in the street:
‘Oi, Golfie, there’s something we’ve . . . got to . . . work on . . !’
‘Great – I know a fantastic workshop…’
‘Jeeez-us . . .!’
‘No, his name is – ‘
That spring was a first for Nish in that for once the annual vehicle check didn’t come round a day too soon. Of course the car reliably produced a couple of points that required Matt’s skilful touch, and when he was done, she took it in for the test with great confidence.
After more than an hour, though, the inspector was still busy checking it, leaving Nish more and more worried. When finally the report was handed to her, it showed the big nasty word ‘failure’. Non-plussed, she drove back to the workshop.
Matt was working at the far side with his back to the entrance. Walking towards him from her car, Nish picked up a vague feeling of peaceful energy and lightness.
‘That’ll be a test failure then,’ said Matt, without turning round.
Oh, she thought, he was not even surprised! Had he known?
She took a deep breath to launch into a ‘How come you said…?’ when her eyes caught sight of a copper coil on the work bench. Brake pipes, as she would soon learn.
‘Wow,’ she said. ‘that’s pretty . . .’
Matt laughed. ‘And it’ll be what’s going into the Golf.’ He glimpsed at the report. ‘Brakes, I suppose?’
Nish nodded, having shifted focus with tornado speed. ‘I’ve always loved copper,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ replied Matt. ‘It’s a great material.’
‘I used to make jewellery out of discarded copper cut offs I picked up working on building sites years ago,’ she said. ‘In the evening we’d go to parties and people always said how much they loved my earrings and brooches. Of course I never told them that I had found them lying in the mud the very same morning . . . This stuff here would be ideal for free-standing sculptures . . .‘
He smiled. Madness obviously was nothing new to Matt. Then he said, with a slight twinkle in his eyes, ‘I’ll leave some in the boot for you once I’m finished. It’ll take about half an hour.’
Nish returned at the agreed time to get the Golf, but she couldn’t wait until she was home to have a look at those brake pipes. First parking outside the town she stopped and opened the hatch. There was the usual blanket and rock collection, the car care box and an old coat. Apart from that it was empty.
He must have forgotten, she thought, trying to brush off the disappointment. Oh well, what can you expect. He’s got plenty of other stuff to think about. Shame though. Those pipes were rather neat.
The following evening, Nish came home after a rather tiring day at work. She parked the car and opened the Golf’s back door to get her camera and jacket out. Just before she turned the key to lock up, she thought she saw something gleam on the floor behind the passenger seat. What on earth could that be? Pulling at a piece of plastic that was buried under about fifteen pairs of shoes she found a pack of brand new copper brake pipes tucked away there. He hadn’t forgotten. Of course not!
Matt grinned when she told him a few days later that it had felt like Christmas in July with only a minor amount of embarrassment about the shoe pile.
‘It’s a working car,’ he said, winking.
As so many other times before, Nish left the workshop with a big smile on her face. She drove off, wondering once again what kind of car he himself might drive. For practical reasons, she would choose an estate for him, but so far she had found herself unable to decide on a make. One thing, though, she was pretty sure about, and that was the colour. It had to be a bright, flaming red.
An Teallach perhaps…. the ‘Star of the West’. She’d always thought that the name meant The Family, because its peaks gave the impression of a group of people standing close together. Gaelic place names can be tricky, though, and it was really another word, very similar, but meaning Forge due to the cloud that was often hovering above its chiselled heights. With its challenging climbs it lured mountaineers by the thousands every year. Not all of them were as responsible as Nish, not all of them knew the boundaries that should not be crossed without creating misery all around. Sometimes they weren’t all that clear to her, either . . .
What about thoughts, for example. She had a sneaking suspicion they weren’t borderline but rather on the off limits side. You could not really claim to believe in ‘one mind’, however tentatively, without applying it to every thought you had. It would have to be a matter of becoming aware therefore, and exercising wisdom, letting go, again and again.
The photography side of her business was booming that summer, which meant that Nish was unusually busy. Between shoots and workshop visits, the weeks and months passed quicker than expected. As the corn changed from green to the colour of Matt’s eyes and then to fields of gold, Nish began to notice little freckles appearing on his skin, totally despite the fact that his neck was none of her business whatsoever. And then, eventually, came the day when the white ring around the crucial finger of his left hand (or possibly the right one) was reunited with its shiny mate, the famous band of gold.
Take the Corran ferry, she thought. Stand on deck as she casts off and watch your perspective change. You don’t have to do a thing, just let the boat take over. Stand and watch; see the world revolve around you. Feel safe. Feel loved.
Because you are.
‘You can bring the car back in two weeks’ time,’ Matt said the following Saturday. ‘Unless you want to come in next week, but then Dylan will deal with it because I’ll be on holiday.’
‘Nah,’ she said, trying to sound casual. ‘I can wait.’ She had already half turned to go, then changed her mind. ‘So where are you going then?’
‘I am taking my wife to the Montreux Jazz Festival.’
‘To Switzerland?’ Nish gave a nostalgic sigh at the thought of snowy Alpine peaks and deep emerald lakes. ‘I’ve been there once, it was brilliant . . .’
‘Yeah, it’s a great place, I know. It’s where we met, years ago, at a Sting concert . . . This is my anniversary present . . .’
Nish nodded, smiling politely, thinking what a great prezzie that was, and at the same time she was wetting herself with laughter inside. It’s all right, she wanted to say and pat him on the shoulder. I know you have a wife and a family, and I’m happy for you!
Then something occurred to her. He played music, didn’t he?
‘Aye, saxophone. I used to be in a band called Undistorted Reality.’ They sniggered slightly at the name and Matt shrugged.
‘What did they play? Jazz?’ Nish loved music, especially Free and Acid Jazz.
‘The guys were mostly into serious experimental material . . . but it’s not my thing really, which is why I stopped, because I much prefer stuff like Acid or Free.’
It had seemed the obvious thing to do. During those weeks Nish was involved in helping a TV team with the production of a programme that required music from local artists.
‘Why don’t you do something for that show?’
She had been convinced that he would consider. But for some reason she could not get hold of him after that. He had called in sick the following Monday, wasn’t back the next day, either, and then she didn’t manage to get any news all week.
Nish was stuck as can be. The pressure was weighing on her, making her stomach sink lower every time she thought of it. And, worse than that, she had never seen so many ambulances on the A9 as during that week.
At the end of her tether, she picked up the phone to ring Gabs. She was lucky, her friend was in, even though not entirely sympathetic.
‘Calm down, woman,’ she said. ‘If he was on his death bed, I would have heard . . .’
‘You are a cruel, heartless b-b-person,’ said Nish, pretending to be put out.
‘And you are a dramatic-obsessive Libra,’ replied Gabs, giggling.
Nish didn’t say much to that. She knew when she was found out.
‘Relax!’ said Gabs. ‘He’s probably just been to a mammoth party. You know what they’re like down there . . .’
‘I know,’ replied Nish reluctantly. But her thoughts wouldn’t stop bugging her. ‘Probably’ just wasn’t good enough. She gave a sigh, saying, ‘I know I shouldn’t worry. I mean, what’s it got to do with me . . . I can’t even begin to imagine what his life is like . . .’
‘In that case, Nish, I suggest you go pay the Brothers Warner a visit.’
‘Eh?’ Oh well, why not . . . ‘Pay’ being the keyword, too, as she found out at the box office.
‘How much . . .??’
Well, what the heck. If in doubt, go for escapism. Nish went for ‘Bruce Almighty’ and laughed her head off at Jim Carrey. It was a great comedy. Stupid romantic plot, though.
But so-called ‘reality’ returned the very next day. With it came the feeling that time was running out. Whether she wanted to or not, she had to take action on behalf of the TV crew. Cursing her talent for managing to set herself up like that she selected a couple of books, wrote a note asking him to get in touch and dropped it all through the letterbox at the workshop.
He did not call.
If ever there was a good time for Nish to get scared, this seemed to be the ideal opportunity. She must have overstepped the line. Well, if she was honest with herself, she had to admit that there were a number of reasons why she had asked him, and one of them was that she had used it as a link, in order to keep the connection because she wasn’t sure whether the car would break down enough (she needn’t have worried a bit about that one. Whoever was it that had invented this myth about reliable German cars? And, more importantly, how had they managed to make everybody believe it?)
Fine, she thought, resigning herself to her fate, I’ll take the slap on the wrist, but please don’t tell me that I have ruined a great friendship before it has even started.
In the meantime, Gabrielle had decided it was time for Nish to be initiated into the decadent pleasures of a metropolitan bookshop (yes, they had that now in Inverness) and her first Starbucks coffee (mediocre and at the same time boldly expensive).
Nish was not overly impressed, but she had other things on her mind.
‘I don’t even want a stupid relationship! Can’t handle the buggers. Turn my life upside down every time until I don’t know what’s black and what’s white!’
Gabs looked confused. ‘But I had thought . . . it had sounded as if . . .?’
‘I would have gone for it . . .? Well, I might, if the situation had been different. Definitely not the way things are.’
‘But if they had split up . . .?’
‘Even then . . . ‘ Nish pondered for a moment, then added, ‘Just take Stac Pollaidh, for example . . .’
‘Stac Pollaidh . . .?’ said Gabs, wondering how they got to talk about mountains all of a sudden.
‘You know, the one that looks like a foot sticking out of the ground.’
‘Oh, I remember! Go on…’
‘Well, imagine what it would look like if you took away its ‘big toe’? Wouldn’t that leave an ugly hole in the landscape? The other toes just wouldn’t look right, would they, and the lochans around it, and Suilven and Cul Mor, could they be complete without the Stac in its entirety?’
‘I suppose not-‘
‘And further, if you took that big toe and set it down on say, Healabhal Mhor, wouldn’t it always look out of place?’
‘Wait, wait, wait . . . First of all, that’s the one on Skye, right?’
‘Right. Call it MacLeod’s Table, if you want, I don’t care. Great flat top . . .’
‘Oh that one…’
‘Well, there’s actually two, but . . .’
‘Okay, let’s not get too carried away here. We have just transplanted Polly’s big toe to Halliwell Four . . .’
‘That’s what I said, Four.’
‘No, not four as in three plus one, it’s ‘mhor’ meaning ‘big’ in Gaelic. And it’s Healabhal, not Halliwell!’
‘Oh – er . . . that makes sense . . . I guess . . .’
‘It does, doesn’t it…’ But Nish’s slight sarcasm was lost on Gabs who was trying to get her head round this elaborate metaphor.
‘Okay,’ Gabs sounded thoughtful. ‘But over time,’ she continued, ‘the grass would grow again and cover the scars, wouldn’t it?’
‘Aye, sure. But maybe the ground on Healabhal Mhor is not the right ground to support the Stac’s toe. The winds from the Hebridean Sea might erode it, weather it down to something it was never meant to be. And what if she, the Great Mover of Mountains, could not cope with that?’
‘Oh my,’ said Gabs, catching her drift, ‘You certainly have lots of ifs and buts . . .’
Nish rolled her car keys in her hand, a half smile on her lips. ‘I know.’ Her fingers were tracing the edge of the key ring that said Tiger Heart. ‘Psychologists call that relationship issues,’ she added dryly.
Gabs laughed, but she wasn’t entirely convinced. ‘So who says?’
‘I said, who is to say whether Halliwell and Polly wouldn’t get on just great? Whether their getting together was not in fact meant to create something completely new, something that had never existed before, a new shape, a new form . . .?’
‘Hm,’ said Nish. ‘True. That’s why I have also been thinking, fuck’s sake, she’s had him for twenty years or more, is that long enough, eh? How about letting someone else have a shot?’
‘What?’ Gabrielle almost bounced up from her seat, looking at her friend with a horrified stare. She hadn’t seen that coming!
Nish put her hand on her Gabrielle’s arm to stop her from going through the roof. She always did take things so literary, and sometimes that proved too much of a temptation for Nish to resist a little wind up. ‘Well . . .’ she said, ‘it’s only a part of me that thinks that, and only on particularly rebellious days, so there. Sin agad e, as the Gaels say, brilliant, that, I’ve always loved the phrase….’
‘Nish, for Christ’s sake – !’
‘It’s just -‘
‘What? I’m not going to act on it, who do you think I am? I am just acknowledging that there is this bit of me that has these kinds of thoughts, that’s all. I don’t believe in hiding this stuff away, only gets destructive if you try and keep it in the dark. It is a very small part anyway, real tiny, probably somewhere in my reptilian brain . . .’
‘What on earth is that supposed to mean?’
Nish shrugged again and grinned. ‘Don’t know.’ Then she ventured, ‘ See you later, alligator?’
‘.. or maybe piss off, crocodile . . Crocodile standing for the wild and beautiful that it’s nevertheless not a good idea to put your head in the jaws of, if you know what I mean.’
’Oh bloomin’ hell, Nish, sometimes you really freak me out . . .For a moment I thought you were serious.’
‘I was, but calm down, I told you it’s only a bit of devil’s advocate there . . . a touch of dreaming into other options . . . it’s good to think these things through, be brutally honest. Helps enormously with the letting go process . . . It’s like pus, you know, you have to get rid of all of it. Otherwise you’re in trouble.’
‘You know,’ said Gabs, with a slightly disgusted expression, ‘listening to you I sometimes feel I could go off relationships forever . . .’
‘I know. Tempting, isn’t it . . ’ giggled Nish.
Gabs blinked. ‘Oh, now, you lost me again.’
‘Never mind. Here, have some chocolate cake . . .’
‘Mhm,’ said Gabs, taking a big spoonful. ‘Rovry . . . ’
‘Lovely . . . ’ confirmed Nish, who never spoke with her mouth full. Well, almost never.
‘And now? How are you going to deal with it?’
‘Good question. How am I going to deal with it . . . ’ Nish stared at her fork for a moment. Then she said. ‘I’m going to tell him . . .’
‘You what? Are you crazy?’
‘What else can I do? I feel dishonest, like a fraud, every time I go in there. I’ve almost stopped going to the workshop altogether because I feel so horrible with all those hidden agendas and stuff . . . Besides, it’s going to seep out anyway, whether I want it to or not, and then I’ll lose my power, turn into a total idiot. Nothing worse than that. Very bad for your self-esteem. And your conversation skills. I’ve already had occasion to find that out,’ she added with a scrunched up face.
‘But . . . but . . .you can’t!’
‘Because you know they had a ropey time only recently. You could be the final straw . . . you could ruin it!’
‘If he is swayed by what I have to say to him, he is not the man I think he is. Honestly, I don’t think he will be. He may be pissed off if he can’t handle it and not want to see me again, which would be pretty awful. But that’s something I will just have to risk.’
‘If you’re so sure, why haven’t you told him long ago?’
‘Because sometimes even my courageous self listens to fears and doubts like any other mere mortal, sweetie. Hence the signs of depression in recent weeks.’
Gabs looked surprised for a moment, then agreed. ‘Yes, actually, I have been wondering . . .’
‘They say that approaching an edge and then retreating from it results in depression.’
‘Oh does it? And how do you get out of it?’
‘Well, I use a pretty old, but nevertheless effective trick: I make myself suffer until even to find out that my fears were justified would be a relief.’ Nish gave a little snort, but the accompanying laugh sounded genuinely amused. ‘Good Christian upbringing,’ she grinned. ‘Still engraved in my soul, you know. Now I have decided I have suffered enough, it is time for redemption, if you’ll excuse another foray into religious speak. Time to either kill it off once and for all, or get on with a great friendship.’
‘You know,’ Gabs mused. ‘ it’s almost like a relationship would be much too narrow, it seems to go way beyond that.’
‘That’s right. By the way, you should have seen me a couple of weeks ago when Sam slipped a comment that there might be a glimmer of a chance . . . Turned out it was a misunderstanding and they were talking about someone else, but my, was that an experience, I am telling you, I went straight to hell. Effing and blinding all the way home. A new relationship really is not a challenge I am keen on just now. But I am of the firm conviction that what I am feeling now not only is the natural state of any human being, but that once we are all back where we belong, this is how we will all feel about each other.’
Gabs sat silent, pondering Nish’s statement that had been delivered with considerable enthusiasm.
‘There’s a lot in this,’ she said, ‘but to be honest, I’m not sure whether I’m with you on that.’
‘No problem,’ said Nish. Chocolate cake and generosity went together well. ‘Do you know Tigger?’ she asked then.
‘Tigger??’ Gabrielle wasn’t sure she had heard right. ‘Tigger?’
‘That’s right. Tigger. You know . . . Winnie the Pooh and all that? He says, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…’
‘That’s an old one, though, isn’t it -‘
‘Well, it’s not finished. He goes on to say, if it’s very badly broken, don’t fix it either.’
‘Ha, that’s good. I like that.’
‘Me too. And my motto is, if it ain’t broke, DON’T BREAK IT.’ She looked at Gabs inquiringly. ‘How many good relationships do you know, honestly? Two? Three?’
‘I don’t know . . . yeah, maybe, two or three.’
‘I had two on my list until recently. Out of all the people I have ever known, two couples have relationships that I consider worthwhile. So Matt and his wife had a bad patch. Well, these things happen. But they worked it out, sort of like doing a big inspection, right? You take things apart, clean them up, maybe replace a few dodgy parts. Add a bit of grease, give it a good polish and you may find that there is a bit of mileage in there yet. You know, I think I’d want to get the champagne out in order to celebrate them as an inspiration rather than trying to split them up.’
‘Hm,’ said Gabs smiling slowly. ‘You really have given this a lot of thought, have you?’
‘Back and forth, honey, again and again and again . . . Not just a pretty face, also a major obsessionist . . . ’
Her friend nodded, ignoring Nish’s facetiousness. ‘Yes, I can see that now . . .’
‘Thanks,’ said Nish. ‘For a while I really felt like you weren’t hearing me.’
‘Well, I am now.’
‘Good. I need at least one person who thinks I am not out of my mind.’
‘Oh, I never said you weren’t . . !’ said Gabs. ‘But then, of course, there is always the crucial hand . . .’
‘The crucial hand?’
Now it was Nish’s turn for incomprehension. Gabs’ face showed more than faint traces of smugness.
‘Aye,‘ she said. ‘Were you not constantly wondering whether it was left or right?’
‘I was, but –‘
‘Well, you see the key to the mystery is that it is both . . .’
‘Eh?’ Nish looked perplexed. ‘What are you on about?’
‘His left hand looks right, doesn’t it . . .’
Nish felt at a complete loss. ‘His left hand looks right . . .’
It took a while until the meaning dawned on her. ‘Of course!’ she
exclaimed, hitting the table with the palm of her hand.
‘His left hand with ring looks totally right!’
Then she dived under the table to pick up her fork and the bits of cake she had sent flying all over the place. By the time she surfaced again, the beetroot colour of her face had almost faded.
Despite of everything Nish had said to Gabs, and despite her own resolutions, it took quite a while before she went to the workshop again. The fear of having made a big mistake with the books and the note had left her with conflicting feelings. On one hand, there was a strong sense of urgency, and on the other she wanted to put off forever finding out about the state of things. Therefore, after initially counting the days since she had last spoken to him, she procrastinated with the visit as long as she possibly could.
She didn’t see Matt straight away, when she arrived, but Dylan nodded over to the reception area. ‘He’s on the phone,’ he said. ‘Just go on in.’
The customer waiting room had been a familiar space for a while. It was not exactly cosy, but reassuring, and Nish never failed to be amused by the fact that the magazines there were provided by Matt’s daughters. Seeing conservative, grown men in old-fashioned tweeds sit down and read Marie Claire always tickled her to the limits of her self-control.
That day there was neither lightness nor entertainment around for her, though. She took a deep breath as she opened the door to the room that all of a sudden felt like the façade of a skyscraper with only a tiny little ledge to cling to. Don’t look down, was all she could think.
Matt didn’t greet her as she stepped inside; he was talking on the phone, his face a perfect mask. If anything, he looked distant, very distant indeed. She sat down, crossed her legs nervously, uncrossed them, crossed them back again. Read every poster in the place. Twice. Learned all about tracking and how important it was for a vehicle’s safety. Well, it looked like she had lost her tracking for good here, didn’t it.
She had done a ‘Strathcarron’, she must have. Tight spaces on narrow roads, loads of cars from the opposite direction. But what she couldn’t understand was that there was so much beauty at the same time… you could go bananas turning any corner, seeing the soft hilltops that she just wanted to lean her head on, like pillows.
Strathcarron. Before you reach the spectacular view from the heights there, you would have to endure continuous, nerve-wracking stop and start, letting the traffic pass. Worse than that, sooner or later you would come to that tunnel where you couldn’t see what was coming towards you. It could be the car that would kill you.
Nish had gone through several rounds of technical education and her knees felt like made from rubber by the time Matt finally put the phone down. ‘Bosses,’ he growled. ‘Who needs them!’ Then he smiled at Nish and added. ‘How are you? Good to see you again…’
This kind of reception was so unexpected and so much more than she had hoped for that, apart from a completely silent gasp, Nish didn’t have a clue how to respond. For lack of a better idea she pretended not to have heard.
It was Strathcarron, right enough, but the other side! The long drawn out village with the feel of another world on the road to Kishorn, streets still wet in places from the rain the night before and the promise of Applecross just around the corner. Applecross – fly up and down the Bealach Na Ba mountain pass, Blazin’ Fiddles on the sound system at full blast. Go wild over the rocks as the sun dishes out highlights across the grass and you sit down for dinner with Dun Caan.
‘Thanks for the books,’ he said with a smirk, breaking her internal journey. ‘I’ll add them to the pile next to my bed…’
Nish blushed a bit, wondering what on earth he would make of Illusions with its peculiar mix of technical and esoteric themes… It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t say Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah right on the cover. Now how naff was that? Oh Christ, she thought, and all because one of the main guys in the story was a mech …! And to top it all off, Next of Kin, the crazy silly hilarious Sci-Fi novel by E. F. Russell.
‘Och, … er … I hope you like them –’
The telephone interrupted her. Matt picked it up, saying, ‘Don’t go just yet…’
Nish sat and waited, the very picture of calm and composure, but inside she was shouting and dancing, ‘I heard that … I heard that!’
‘It’s about this TV thing,’ he said, once again dragging her back into reality when he had finished the call. ‘I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I am sorry, but I really can’t do it.’
Nish nodded, she had anticipated that a while ago and organised a replacement. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘It’s fine. Just thought it would have been nice, that’s all.’
‘Thanks for asking me anyway.’ He paused for a moment. Then he smiled and added ‘Come with me,’ leading the way into the little tool room that by the looks of it had been there since the beginning of time. It was dark in there, and most of the surfaces worn from years of usage. A few tools were lying on racks next to big work boxes.
Nish had been there before. In her innocent joy about the copper pipes that day she had followed him inside where he kept the stock, all shiny and attractive in its packaging. It wasn’t until later, much later, that she thought this could have been an ideal location, away from prying eyes…
This time she was aware of this option right away, but it was only a fleeting thought, discarded as unconstructive as soon as it had appeared. This was An Teallach territory: If you knew you weren’t kitted out for the Sgurr Fiona route, you wouldn’t go. It was as simple as that. You take the high road and I take the ‘hands off road’.
‘Here,’ he said, handing her a strange looking tool. His fingers brushed hers, causing an involuntary ripple of delight to sneak through her (excuse me, didn’t we just say ‘hands off’? Oops… er … Sorry!).
‘What is it?’
‘You can use this to bend the pipes.’
Ah-ah, thought Nish, pleased and at the same time greatly amused. Looks like Uncle Sigmund recommends kreatiff subloomination… Or should I go on a bender instead? Then she grinned. ‘Cheers, Matt. I’ll bring it back on Monday.’
‘Och, whenever… Have it as long as you like.’
NIsh smiled, felt it was a good time to take the plunge and do what she had been avoiding, fearing and looking forward to, all at the same time. But just as she opened her mouth to say, ‘Hey, there’s something I would like to talk to you about…,’ he looked at her in his straightforward way and added, ‘By the way, you don’t really need a broken car to come and have a chat, okay?‘
For a moment Nish didn’t know where to look. She giggled a bit, felt found out, but only briefly. Then she looked at the familiar open and caring face, realising that she had wasted enough time, that there was only one response to this: a deep resounding, relieved belly laugh. How could she have been so silly not to realise that a friendship with Matt it would be easy and simple, nothing to worry about whatsoever.
Standing next to him now, she noticed again that he wasn’t all that tall, even though for some strange reason he appeared to be. It surprised her every time how they measured exactly eye to eye. Of course, she usually cheated a little with the help of high heels, but that was okay. It was great never having to look up to him.
Drive off the ferry at Ardgour, turn the corner as the road follows the edge of the water. Cast your eyes across Loch Linnhe, far up into Glen Coe, towards living and breathing mountains, where the pulse of open secrets shimmer in the bright harmony of everything; see if you can make out the End of Weeping… and if you continue on to Ardnamurchan, you may just find the light at the Point; perhaps even the realisation that it has been guiding you all along .
Truth, thought Nish, can be found anywhere, and beauty, too, be it in a piece of copper tube, in the features of a human being, or the perfect contours of the landscape you happen to find yourself in.
Nish immersed herself in the high notes, the drones, and all the wondrous sounds in between, weaving along the journey all the way to the edge of the dreaming world and beyond. Driving through these mystical places, her eyes and her heart, her whole being, made love to mountains and rivers, coast lines and lochs; to the entire country that reciprocated perfectly, with cymbals and drums, the complete works.
Running her fingertips along the grassy gneiss slopes of Lewis, the endless vastness of the west coast views and the turquoise beaches of the North, she followed the graceful arcs of herons, joined gannets in their roaring flight, all the while lying poured onto the landscape under skies as clear as the light in Matt’s face, where no one was left aside and nothing, nothing was ever lost.