Tuesday, December 28, 2010

71. Scotland

Do you remember my writing about Denis Read, the man Tom enlisted with at Lords Cricket Ground in 1942? They were being trained as Air Crew in Canada during the war and I think a good time was had by all there. Stories of unlimited ice cream and apple juice, girls and beer, never told to me by Tom, were later related by Denis. After the war they had served together in the Provost Branch, both eventually becoming Commissioned Officers. Denis had a beautiful speaking voice and used to give the commentary for the RAF Police Dog Display at the Annual Royal Tattoos at Earls Court. After Tom died, Denis was very solicitous with his telephone calls from Scotland and when I told him that I would be in England he invited me to stay with him for a few days.

Denis had been widowed twice, both wives dying of cancer. I had accepted the invitation with slight trepidation because we had not met in fifteen years and I wondered what we would have in common and what we would talk about. I had joked that we might not recognise each other and that he had better wear a yellow rose and carry a copy of the Times. The plane landed at Edinburgh Airport and there he was, complete with yellow rose and a copy of the Times held rather pointedly in front of him, like a courier with a board. I would have known him anywhere. I was the one who needed the label! We laughed as we greeted each other with a slight hug that was just once removed from a handshake. He was shorter than I remembered but the smile and the voice were unchanged.

Broughton on Bigger, where Denis lived, was a great deal further from the airport than he had led me to believe and we drove past miles and miles of magnificent scenery. Hundreds of sheep - some dyed with vivid red, yellow and blue - grazed lazily in the fields. This was colour coding with a vengeance, and the sheep were visible even against the hills which were covered in bright, purple heather. Unfortunately, the heather was too far away to pick even a small bunch, but the sun shone down to bless us all. This was John Buchan country where his mother was born and where he spent much of his life. We later visited a church in a village near where Denis lived which had been converted into a centre devoted to John Buchan, the man who became Lord Tweedsmere, Governor of Canada. Many photographs were displayed there, certificates, testimonials, medals and books. He was far more than just the author of “The Forty Nine Steps”.

Denis was a charming host and his bungalow, set at the bottom of a steep slope, was cosy. I worried about the dangers of that slope in winter, when the path to the front door would be covered in ice. The bathroom was functional with something I envied, a heat controlled geyser which served the shower. I was reminded of the lovely reply made by a very attractive elderly widow when asked why she had never remarried. “My, dear” she replied, “There have been many men with whom I would be happy to share my bed, but never my bathroom!” I agree. Bathrooms and kitchens should never be shared, unless the man is holding a drying up cloth.

That evening Denis took me to a delightful restaurant where the ceiling was supported by 17th Century smoke blackened wooden beams. “The Bakery”, as it was called, was heavy with history and atmosphere which was reflected in the menu. Rabbit was available. Now I had three memories of rabbit, other than Beatrix Potter’s endearing little creatures; the first memory was of the huge, Australian rabbits I used to buy in Egypt, the second of the night before our wedding when Tom and I went rabbit shooting with the Wing Commander and the third, not quite so funny, was the time when the wife of a farm labourer I knew came to the house in Netheravon and handed me a present. It was a very dead rabbit, complete with head and ears and eyes, and it had not occurred to her that I would be unable to skin the animal. But, money was short and this was food, and I amazed myself by skinning it, mostly with my eyes closed, and making a very fine stew. Even after that gory experience, I still enjoyed rabbit; much preferred the texture to that of chicken. I cannot understand why rabbit is so expensive when it is so easy to grow.

The following day, Denis drove us to a very unusual theatre in Pitlochry, a two hundred mile round trip away, and a journey only an ardent thespian and generous host would tackle. The theatre is not located in a town but in beautiful park-like grounds with a river running through it where, in the season, salmon swim upstream to spawn and die. There was a salmon catching farm there and we watched the salmon swimming through the running water. Considering we were in Scotland, the weather was perfect. Unfortunately the only matinee programme being performed during my short stay was an Agatha Christie play “The Hollow”, which was entertaining but not memorable. After the show we walked along the river looking for leaping fish bravely trying to swim upstream, but did not see any. We went back to the theatre tea room which was empty by now apart from one lone actor. I thanked him for an enjoyable performance, actors like that, and we got talking. When he learned that I came from South Africa he asked me if I knew Sandra Prinsloo. Well I had seen her on the small screen, she was a fine actress, but I did not know her personally. He said that she had worked with the company while she was visiting her mother in Scotland, and he thought she would not be returning to South Africa. Certainly, I have not seen her on our television screens since that time

Broughton was a tiny village which one could drive through in thirty seconds at thirty miles an hour. The Post Office opened for a couple of hours in the morning, and doubled as the petrol station. The gardens were full of birds and the air was so clear and clean one could actually smell it. The most striking feature in the village was “Tom’s Garden”, where the owner spends almost all the daylight hours. I would guess it covers about four acres. The first thing we saw from the garden picket fence was the huge flower clock, actually set at the correct time. Standing on a tree stump by the little gate was a tin charity collection box into which visitors were invited to drop a donation. Behind a dusty window, in front of a dirty net curtain, hung a piece of cardboard on which was written the amount of money that had been collected over the years, and the charities to which it had been given. The unchained collecting box was an indication of the character of the village, and the villagers. When the horticulturists from Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town were visiting the Chelsea Flower show, they made a special journey to Scotland to see Tom’s Garden. Tom also grew vegetables and I was delighted when he asked the old lady who was with us, “Aye, Dorothy, would you no like to pick a wee boiling of beans?”

In the evenings Denis and I sat by the fire, talking about old times, old plays, old RAF Police buddies and his favourite topics, his much loved first wife and his adored little dog who had died recently, and about whom Denis was compiling an album of his life in pictures. Some times Denis just dozed. Towards the end of the visit Denis suggested that, should I ever decide to return to live in England, we might consider sharing a house; strictly platonic of course, and for one moment I thought it might be a good idea, but the moment passed! On Saturday we bade each other a fond farewell after promising that I would return the following year. I was very sad to leave Scotland, the peace, beauty and tranquillity of the land and the people had cleansed my soul and lightened my heart. The departure of the plane was delayed for an hour, so I consoled myself with the biggest double scoop of the most heavenly chocolate ice cream that I have ever tasted, and all was right with the world again.

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