Acrid air; sweet yet barbed with sulphur; warm must of hayloft, green, green sweet cut grass, dry gritty ancient dust of wood, with blue smoke arising from the shiny wooden pipe-bowl held between oily tobacco stained fingers. Sitting on slices of tree trunk that also served as chopping blocks, Willie and I eat our cheese and tomato sandwiches. Our boots, grass clagged and muddied from the morning, tap, tap the age worn cobbles of the courtyard. The beech trees behind the old keep rustle their leaves and perforate the sunlight into sprite-lights that dance across honey-coloured stonework and glint and sparkle on the crown glass windows of the old stable yard buildings.
Filled with energy, hope and optimism, I am eighteen – a gardener – I cut grass, weed and dig in the rich living earth. I breathe the clean air, smell the green, green, sweet, cut grass and love my life. Fifty years ago, it is as yesterday. Through my nose living air exults amid a dizzying celebration of light, cascading through my eyes, while behind me dead air surrounds the discarded possessions of a rich man – oil paintings in gilded picture frames, tiger skins, ornate mirrors, Rudge bicycles and the broken pieces of a china dinner service.
Willie wears dirty blue overalls filled out by his bulging belly and pudgy short legs. His puffed, florid face is plain, wrinkled yet uncomplicated - modulated only by a bulbous nose, two small blue eyes under bushy brows topped off by a flat tweed cap. Sometimes he speaks, but not often.
“Guid day tae cut the tennis court, I'll get the Ransome oot.” says Willie.
“O.K.” I reply.
The continental scythe feels balanced and light as it arches through the blue air, shining, glinting; its bright steel edge, razored sharp on stone and oil, cuts like a butcher's cleaver through willow herb, dandelion and tall grasses – laying them neatly in felled rows, hollow stems, purple heads, yellow rosettes, greenness upon greenness, as the rhythm of the pendulum's sweep moves on and on. My heart pumping, muscles taught and flexing – swinging up, swinging down, over and over, the pleasures of motion, of rhythm, of pace and repetition. A bead of sweat, the heat of the sun on my face and back, nakedness, sensual and powerful, as the blade sweeps back and forth, back and forth. Clouds of silver white gossamer Rosebay, and Dandelion parachute seeds rise in the warm summer air, while under my mud clagged boots, plastered with chopped green grass, rise clouds of silken pollens, mistily drifting away to anywhere. Swish, swish, swish the blade rises and falls, falls and rises.
Willie drags the heavy 'Ransome' out of the dead air of the old stable. It has two turned wooden handles on curved shafts holding control levers. The bulbous green petrol tank sits above the fins and tubes of the engine. Belts and chains run to the cylindrical spiral blades of the cutter above a blade that controls depth of cut. In front is a large green bin that collects grass cuttings. On it is written in gold script the word 'Ransome'.
Willie pours petrol from a rusty metal can into a conical filler that sits in the entry to the petrol tank. The acrid fumes of petrol mix with the sweet cut grass and produce a strange exotic medley. Willie grunts when the tank is full, then begins to tug on the cord that spins the engine. After priming the carbureator —and with two or three hard pulls — the engine fires into raucous life amid a cloud of bitter blue smoke. I adjust the throttle and engage the clutch. The machine coughs, jerks and moves forward on its large rear roller. We chug, clanking, slowly across the courtyard onto the driveway in front of the elegant stone built Victorian mansion. Then onward to the tennis court – just beyond the sloping bankings and the 17th century ornate fountain. Back and forward, up and down – the machine purrs and trims, leaving a green tartan on the firm lawn.
“Sir Stewart tells me that it has been more than ten years since anyone has played tennis on that court,” I say. “But we have to be prepared for visitors and we have to maintain the appearance of the lawn.”
Sir Stewart Stewart-Clark is a boy of sixty five years. Tall, energetic, his full head of silver hair is kept tidy with pomade. Craggy featured, blue-eyed with an aristocratic nose and strong chin above cravat and open shirt. He usually wears estate tweed plus fours, waistcoat and shooting jacket. His voice is warm yet authoritative and his smile kindly when he is sober, which isn't often.
Voluptuous and flouncing, the blousey pink, purple, red and white rhododendron pompoms gush in profusion against the broad, dark-green, shiny leaves. Old bushes, twelve feet tall and wide, line the mile-long driveway that I walk most mornings, while the sea haar drifts and swirls through the trees. A soft white haze constrains the vision as silhouettes of rabbits appear and disappear, ghost-like, leaving only green smears in the silver dew soaked grass.
The Fergie hums and roars, its grey bonnet and mudguards vibrate in time with the revolutions of the engine that is controlled by my right foot on the accelerator. The large black knobbly steering wheel twists and turns as I negotiate the twists and turns of the driveway. The grass tyres leave only passing marks on the grass as the mower, pulled behind, cuts the edging. My arm brushes the rhododendrons, while rabbits run in fear as I bounce and twist in the tractor seat as we charge along.
Lady Jane Stewart-Clark loves her dogs, her geraniums and her rhododendrons but not, it would appear, her husband. She lives in the west wing of the house and he in the east wing. They communicate when essential using hand-written notes passed through the cook or the handyman. They remain married for appearances but live separate lives. When the separation began we were not sure, but it may have been finalized by the incident with her favourite poodle called 'Celia'.
Sir Stewart had gone to Queensferry village to replenish his gin stocks. On returning to the house in his Bentley, he had failed to notice Celia on the driveway. He thought the sound of her bones breaking was the unusually loud sound of gravel scrunching under the tyres of the car – as gravel does scrunch loudly under large Bentley tyres.
Now in revenge (or vengeance) she had constructed, outside Sir Stewart's study window, on his favourite stretch of lawn, a mausoleum to Celia – a marble headstone, decorative funerary urns, all enclosed within strong elaborate Gothic railings. This tomb causes considerable difficulty when trying to cut the lawns to the south of the house with the Fergie pulling the three gang mower. However, it remains a lasting memorial to Sir Stewart's carelessness.
The rabbits do not run from me as I approach. They sit motionless on the green lawn in the morning, sometimes just one or two, often a dozen or more. The foxes avoid them - they are unhealthy prey. Their eyes are matted closed with greenish yellow pus and flies and flees gather on their festering eyelids. They wait to die. I kill them humanely with a quick blow to the head with a club I carry with me or I hold them between head and legs to break their necks with a quick snap. I dispose of the bodies under the dark interior of the rhododendron bushes. Life will bloom amidst death. By eight-thirty the lawns are ready for viewing or cutting. It takes me many weeks to become accustomed to this 'mercy killing'. It never felt right but the suffering of these gentle innocent animals was excruciating to bear. Myxomatosis is a virus disease which was introduced to wage war against the rabbit population in Australia, Europe and the UK in the 1950's.
“We'll hae tae deal wi’ the wah-spis.” Willie splits the word wasps into two – with a hard 'wah' sound then follows by spitting out the 's' and 'p' — echoing his intense dislike for the busy, stinging, yellow and black striped insects. These colonial insects build their nests in every conceivable place – a gap in a wall, in a tree, under a stair, in an old shed. Often the nest is obvious, a large globular paper hive filled with wasps busily coming and going with the chewed wood that they make into paper.
Sometimes the nest is well hidden and only betrayed by the wasps entering and exiting from a small hole in a wall or tree. Willie produces a round tin emblazoned with a skull and crossbones symbol and the words 'DANGER – CYANIDE POWDER' in large red letters. Today we place a spoonful of cyanide powder at the entrance to a nest that is behind stonework near the entrance to the mansion. The wasps come and go dragging the poison into the hive. Very soon the insects begin pouring out of the hole in the wall and dropping to the ground to form a large pile of dying, squirming legs, wings and yellow and black striped bodies. I feel deeply ashamed at this killing for killing’s sake. I am an accomplice to mass murder.
Two shotgun blasts explode nearby. Sir Stewart is standing in the middle of the driveway, trying to reload the smoking shotgun he is holding. It is ten thirty in the morning.
“Damned blighter, nearly got him – moved too fast. I'll get him next time.”
We see the fox disappear over a rise in the ground a hundred yards away. She is a beautiful creature – rusty red coat, pure white breast and belly, long bushy tail, keen eyes and erect ears. Her nose smells the man who wants to kill her and she moves quickly and surely, easily outclassing her gin-soaked assailant.
Lady Stewart wears black in perpetual mourning for Celia. She comes and goes from the house now only by private hire cars. Her 1955 MG Roadster languishes in one of the old stables in the courtyard, its crimson paintwork covered in rust-coloured spores falling from the strange deformed fungus fruits that cling to the roof timbers. There is a smell of burning but there is no fire. The floors of the rooms above the stable, that once housed stable-boys and grooms, have rotted away to powder. Lady Stewart told me that there were once twelve gardeners on the estate and many other servants – but that was before the Great War.
“The gardens have not looked so beautiful as they do this year, thanks to you, Gordon.”
She knows how to flatter and even through the lines and cares of her age, I can see that she had been very pretty in her youth. She is gracious and kind-hearted.
When it rains Willie and I sit on our tree stumps in the shed. He smokes his pipe and complains about the weather, his wife and their miserable life as slaves to Sir and Lady Stewart. I think about the rain, motorbikes and girls.
I am digging at the tattie patch in the old walled garden, that Willie planted out in the Spring. Here are the vestigial remains of a splendid garden that once would have provided the house with an abundance of fruit and vegetables. Espalier pear and apple trees leaning against the crumbling brick walls have now rebelled to tangled madness. The lean-to greenhouses that sheltered apricots, tomatoes and cucumbers have rotted and fallen to disarray. Rosebay, dandelion, nettles and thistles are now the main crop in this lost and forlorn walled world.
I dig some shaws of early potatoes from the rich black earth – unearthing the creamy-skinned tubers of small new potatoes. Sir Stewart wants some tatties for his lunch. The cook who comes up from the village daily is not well, therefore Sir has to improvise. He comes out to me while I am weeding the drive with the 'flamethrower', and asks somewhat meekly if I know how to cook potatoes. I tell him that I cook them every day for my mum and dad, so that they’ll be ready when they return from work.
“Splendid” he replies. “Would you mind digging some potatoes for me and cooking them in the back kitchen. I love new potatoes with some butter.”
At the time it doesn’t occur to me that it’s odd that a 65 year old doesn’t know how to boil potatoes. The cook is ill for the rest of the week so I become the surrogate. I boil eggs for Sir, I make toast, I fry bacon, sausages and eggs and make pots of tea for him. He seems in awe of my simple culinary skills, thanking me generously and profusely. Yet he never ventures to lift a finger to cook for himself. A lifetime of being served and waited upon has rendered him quite helpless. One day I offer to make him macaroni and cheese. I make a rue with butter and flour, add some milk and when it boils, melt the grated cheese into the sauce. He is delighted at the result and praises my skill.
“How did you learn to cook - you’re not a girl?” he asks, clearly believing that cooking and the male gender must remain forever apart.
I tell him that I worked for a time, mostly evenings and weekends, at the five-star Barnton Hotel in the French-style restaurant, as a waiter. The head waiter taught me how to do basic sauces, so that I could cook at customers tables such items as steaks flambee and Crepe Suzette. Sir is impressed.
“Perhaps I should employ you as the cook instead of old Mrs McLeod?”
“No, no, I enjoy the outdoors and the garden much more than the kitchen.”
Strange, those days, cooking for this elderly aristocratic man, who despite the differences in our ages and backgrounds, I come to like and enjoy his company. I sense his isolation, loneliness and his longing or envy for my youth and freedom. He would confide in me his money problems, the impossible task of maintaining the estate, and that this year he could not afford a new Bentley. He would have to make do with the 1968 model for another year. As a Baronet and Justice of the Peace he has to keep up appearances, be a 'good boy' and attend all sorts of boring functions because he is the local 'big-wig'.
He tells me that he often feels hypocritical sitting as the Justice of the Peace and passing sentence on local disorderly drunks who drank less than he did. Sir Stewart bolsters himself with masculinity props – his shotguns, his Bentley and his aristocratic demeanor, but I can sense and feel his insecurity, the little lost boy inside and his craving for companionship. In truth he wishes he could cook, but he was always told it was beneath him – the work of women or chefs. His life has been one of privilege, never wanting, never having to struggle or invent, never creative or self reliant, always cared for and coddled. He is deeply bored with his life because he has no real purpose.
The huge mound of rotted manure stands before me, delivered by the local farmer with his stacked trailer pulled by a large red tractor.
“Sir wants the gairden at the north side o' the hoose, manured, dug an' planted oot. We'll jist work it in wi' the roatavator,” Willie advises me.
The northside garden hasn't been dug over for years and the rotavator sputters and coughs, stops and starts, pulls and kicks, unable to break through the top layer of sods and weeds – scattering manure all over me.
“It will be less work to dig it in using fork and spade,” I suggest, taking off my manure splattered jacket. I pick up the fork and start making some progress. Manuring and pulling weeds as I go, it will take several weeks of hard digging to begin to tame this garden. Many years ago the area had been fenced to protect it from rabbit raids. Chicken wire had been sunk three feet below the surface to thwart rabbit tunnelling, but it proves useless. Rabbits have big appetites for young vegetables and the buried wires have long since rusted away as to present no barrier to invasion.
This garden project of Sir's seems doomed from conception. It is too late in the year to plant most vegetables and besides, the garden is shaded by the mansion house most of the day. However undeterred, we plant kale, Brussel sprouts, cabbage plants and some annual flowers. Like prison guards at a Stalag in reverse, we check the perimeter fence for any weak spots or breaches. For a few days the plants prosper but when we return after the weekend, we find everything nibbled to stubs.
“Aw that wirk fir naethin',” sighs Willie.
Secretly I admire the tenacity of the rabbits. Somehow they have also managed to scale the tall stone Grecian urn planters at the side of the house and devour all the geraniums – flowers, leaves and stems. It seems an impossible feat. Did they jump over eight feet to land in the urns, did they use a ladder and did they work as a team. Then I realise there has been human intervention. Geraniums are Lady Stewart's favourite flowers and I also realise that the stinking manure pile in the north-side garden now adjoins her sleeping quarters.
The helicopter's roar and brittle chatter shatters the morning peace. It hovers above the house and we wave to the Navy (Royal Fleet Air Arm). They wave back. It is Navy Day at Rosyth Naval Base and all day there will be air and naval displays all around the Firth of Forth. A Phantom jet demonstrates a screaming bomb attack; a Harrier jump jet stops in mid air, hovers then shoots away. Then a formation of fighter jets barrels into view at tree top height. The lead jet manages to lop off six feet of pine tree at the edge of the lawn leaving it looking decidedly truncated. Miraculously the aircraft is not damaged. Lady Stewart is outraged.
“My beautiful Norway Spruce is ruined. It's not pointed any more and those dreadful RAF people have ruined the view from my dining room.”
A few days later a large RAF staff car pulls up outside the house and Squadron Leader Harris, carrying a large bouquet of flowers, announces himself at the main door. He apologises profusely to Lady Stewart for the damage to her tree and tells her that he has severely reprimanded the pilot and stripped him of privileges. No mention was made of the potential air disaster that might have occurred if the jet had been a few feet lower.
Rosebay Willow Herb is a beautiful plant, sometimes called 'Fireweed' because it is often the first plant to colonise after a brush fire. The tall red stems grow near five feet tall, close together. The bold pink flowers are striking and the gossamer seeds are soft, translucent, lifting into the air on the slightest breeze. The plant is prodigious and invasive. Large areas of the Estate that were once meadow or parkland have been colonised by the invader. I have scythed all morning and have now made for myself a clearing within the encircling Willow Herb. I lie down on a soft bed of red stems, hidden from view. I am ensconsed in a private sanctuary. It is hot under the direct sun and I am sweating from the physical exertions of the day. My feet hurt so I take off my boots and socks, then my shirt, trousers and underwear. It feels luxurious, decadent and wonderful to be naked in the embrace of nature. Fully male, tumescent and bursting with the juice and ripeness of youth. I think of girls I have met, would like to meet and whom I will never meet while the air drones and sings with insects wings. Growth and fertility pulses so strongly that I can feel and hear its music – the huge symphony of life – blowing, vibrating, alternately in jagged discord and rich sonorous harmony, all around and inside me.
Alexander “Sandy” Haston used to work on the Estate as a general handyman but since he retired five years ago he only comes occasionally when summoned by Lady Stewart to fix something in the mansion. Sandy is an astute, wiry, pawky Scot, blue eyed with a fresh complexion, sharp nosed with a wry wit and charming smile. He speaks in his native Lallans; terse, angular hardened vowels with a lilting cadence. We are sitting in the bothy eating our sandwiches and sharing a bottle of rhubarb wine that Sandy has brought with him.
“Fettled this wine year past, frae the champagne rhubarb that grows ahint the auld North Lodge. The best rhubarb fir makin rhubarb wine that there is.”
“It really does sparkle and fizz like champagne and tastes excellent,” I remarked, sipping from my enamel cup.
“Packs a punch tae”, advises Sandy. “Mind no tae drink ower much or ye'll be totterin aboot a aifternin.”
We laugh and drink some more. I remember a mellow, tranquil, happy, drowsy afternoon. Sandy wanted to show me the rhubarb patch, so leaving Willie behind, the two of us set off to walk the North drive to the North Lodge. The rhododendrons on this driveway had reverted to their purple bluish flowers and were lank and spindly. The verges were growing nettles and dandelion pompoms that exploded and sent their seeds skyward as we kicked at them in passing. Pheasants dart out from under the rhodies and waddle quickly ahead of us, before launching themselves – whirring into the air to avoid our lunging boots. Sir or Lady Stewart never used this drive to come or go so they did not care to have us keep it looking trim and neat.
The North Lodge was empty, its windows boarded up with plywood and the garden was lost and gone to seeded docken, buttercup, nettles, willow herb and dandelion while an old rambling rose struggled to bloom and perfume the air. Pushing the weeds aside we reached the rear garden and came upon the huge patch of spreading, shiny green umbeliferous rhubarb leaves.
“Try some,” suggested Sandy
I pulled thin stems that part easily from the dark corms. The rhubarb stems are white, turning to deep red then to green. I broke off the leaves and bite into the white fleshy fruit; it is juicy, tart but rich with earthy flavour.
“I like it, but it would be better with a bit of sugar.”
“Aye, tak a bunnel hame wi ye and cook it up wi some sugar. Hae it wi some custard. Cannae beat it fur flavour.”
I picked a bundle of young tender stems and with an armful we returned slowly to the bothy.
“See yon North Lodge. Used tae be a picter when Jim an Nell hud it. They wid weep tae see it noo.”
“Dinnae ye fancy a wee hoose o' yer ain?,” Sandy continued. “Ye cud git yersel a wee lassie – tak the North Lodge an' dae it up. Sir an her Ladyship wid rent it tae ye cheap like, jist tae hae aebody in it, ye ken.”
I smiled and laughed, “Maybe, I'll think about it.”
But I had other dreams and plans.
A few weeks later after the wine, Sandy is called to the house by Lady Stewart as a matter of some urgency. A Chippendale dining chair has been broken. Sandy inspects the damage. A rear leg is snapped, probably by someone swinging back on the delicate antique chair.
“Ah telt her that it wid need a fine cabinet maker to mend it richt, but she kept saying tae me tae glue it or mak a splint for it – as if it wir a dug wi a broken leg. She's a nice lady, ye ken, but no the brightest when it cams tae fixin antiques. I looked up the phone book, fund a nummer an there is a manny frae Embrae camin oot the morra to see if it can be fixed.”
I can imagine the dining room chairs and tables all repaired with bandages and splints and I say to Sandy that it reminds me of my mother's china - all glued together with the wrong type of glue.
Sandy laughs and says that it reminds him of his time in the Navy when everything seemed at times held together with string and rope. I ask him to tell me about his Navy days.
“I was jist a laddie when the war stairted, sixteen. I lied aboot ma age an jined the Navy at Rosyth. Ye ken, the Navy wis brawer than the Airmy. Oot on the ocean, win in yer face, saut on yer tung – nae trenches or barbed wire an glaur. Mind, it wis haird though. In 1914 Ratings went barefit maist o' the time an I mind yince echt o' us hid tae cairy a cutter, ken – a rowin boat – twenty miles bairfit when oor ship got cawed doon the Firth frae the Ferry tae Leith. Ma fit were bleedin, an we were aw cursin’, but it wis orders, ye ken. The war wis like that, maist o' the time we didnae ken whit wis gawin’ on. Ye jist did whit ye were telt an hoped ye wid come oot o' it alive. In hindsicht ye can see that the war stairted as a petty squabble ‘mang relatives. Ye ken, aw the European royals wir relatives, jealous, spiteful, ambitious, competitive jist like Sir and her Ladyship. Sniping at yin anither, blamin’ yin anither fir their empty disappointin’ lives. The Kaiser, the Czar, the Emperor, the King, brithers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles aw intermairrit. The sudgers and sailors obey orders, jist like we dae, stupid orders that mak nae sense, but we obey regairdless. Don't we laddie?”
“Aye,” I reply, “all that manure I shovelled into that stupid garden.”
“Aye,” says Sandy, “jist a big pile o' manure tae get back at her ladyship fir the dug’s memorial on the lawn.”
It had been a year in the making: stripped to bare metal and repainted; the engine reassembled; gaskets, bearings and seals replaced; new chromed parts; twin megaphone exhausts, high handlebars; leather seat with high backrest; tear-drop petrol tank. The A10 B.S.A 650cc was reborn as a 'chopper' resplendent in lime green frame, yellow and orange tank with red flame work. One of its first outings was to take me from home in Edinburgh to the Estate.
The big engine was purring sweetly; the wind flowed through my shoulder-length hair, as I sped along the approach road to the Forth Road Bridge, then around a round-a-bout to soon turn into the Estate. Passing Willie, standing at the South Lodge, with a wave and a roar of engine I accelerate up the driveway; green purple, red, pink, white blurring as I pass. I skid to a halt, leaving a short dark mark on the gravel then drive slowly into the stable yard. The engine sounds loudly reverberating off the stone walls and cobbles. Pulling the bike up onto its centre stand, I switch off the engine. It felt empowering and enervating to arrive on this machine that I had lovingly recreated using most of the money I had earned working at this Estate.
“By Jove, what have we here?” Sir Stewart exclaims as he comes toward me. The sound of the motorbike has brought him out to investigate.
“Jolly nice! She's a big beast and I love the colours. I had a Norton, then a Vincent Black Shadow when I was younger. We used to race at Brooklands track. Great fun back then in the ‘20's. Its been a long time since I rode a bike. Perhaps you would let me have a little spin on your bike - around the Estate?”
How could I say no, I thought.
“Tell you what, I'll swap your bike for a shot of my Bentley.”
“O.K. I replied.” How could I refuse such an offer?
Sir Stewart dug in his trouser pocket, found the car keys and handed them to me.
“It's an automatic, you just drive with one foot. You'll get the hang of it easily. Just go slowly at first. It's a big car but very smooth.”
I show Sir the controls on the BSA, the gears and the brakes, then kick start the engine. He sits astride the bike. I push it off the stand and he lets out the clutch. Soon he is back at Brooklands and with a roar, disappears down the South drive. I go over to the Bentley, unlock the door, put the key in the ignition and start her up. With a foot on the brake, I slip the transmission into drive, release the brake and soon I am rolling.
I go slowly, never having driven such a large car and certainly never one so valuable. As the car glides smoothly along, automatically changing gear, its seems moments have only passed and I am at the gatehouse. Should I go on, out onto the public road? I decide to go down to the round-about and then come back, but when I reach the turnaround I feel brave and take the slip road onto the dual carriageway. The car picks up speed and effortlessly reaches seventy, then eighty miles per hour. I get to the Barnton roundabout and decide to turn back. Ten minutes later, I arrive back at the front of the mansion house, but there is no sign of Sir Stewart. Fully half an hour later I hear the roar of the BSA and Sir comes hurtling up the drive and skids to a halt on the gravel apron. He is beaming.
“Wonderful, absolutely fabulous, I haven't had so much fun in years!” he exclaims. “Did you enjoy the Bentley? Isn't she a beauty, but quite tame compared to your beast.”
As he dismounts I take hold of the bike and put it on its stand.
“The Bentley is a very fine machine and thank you for letting me drive it. It was quite a treat. By the way, what would you like me to do in the gardens today?”
“I think the tennis court could do with a cut, and could you dig me some more of those delicious new potatoes for my lunch?”
“Yes sir,” I reply.
The 1968 Bentley T1, 6.5 litre V8 Sedan is a majestic machine with its deep leather upholstery and walnut dashboard and trim. When it is running, inside it is whisper quiet, the rev counter being the only indication that the engine is operating. I put the transmission into drive and push on the accelerator. The large car moves forward on the gravel driveway. The only sounds are the crunch, crunch of gravel under the large rubber tyres of this aristocratic vehicle as it moves along. Sir Stewart has given me an errand. He needs more gin but is too drunk to drive himself to the off-license. I offer to go to the village on foot but he says, “Take the Bentley!” and throws me the keys. It's not the first time I've driven this car so I don't hesitate to accept the offer.
I pull up outside the off-licence in the narrow historic High Street of Queensferry, and go inside to collect the consignment of gin for Sir Stewart. The shop assistant hands me the booze in a brown paper bag and tells me that she will put it on his account. I get back into the Bentley. With my long hair and denims the locals are gawking at me, probably thinking that I must be some pop or rock and roll star.
The oars dip and dip, dip and dip into the dark water, sending ripples expanding outwards across the once stilled surface. The boat moves slowly, there is no urgency; the sun anoints us on this tranquil morning. Our mission is to prepare the boathouse for the shooting party's picnic lunch. The rustic boathouse, like most of the Estate buildings, has seen better times. Moss encrusts the roof tiles and lichen clings to the walls and deck. Fallen flat muted leaves stick to dark wet wood. The little building is engulfed in foliage and undergrowth of bramble, ivy, willow herb and nettles while along the loch shore float the broad green leaves of water lilies; their waiting, budding flowers are yet to burst open.
We draw the rowing boat alongside the landing stage, tie the painter to a post and begin our reconnaissance of the building. Jim, the gamekeeper, wears corduroy plus fours, green Wellington boots, a plaid shirt under a waxed green Barbour jacket. In his mid thirties, he has a full head of black hair kept short and neat. His eyes are brown and alert above a pointed nose and firm chin. He is lean, fit and confident, at ease with his way of life, he smiles often. Usually he carries his 303 rifle with him but today he has left it in his Land Rover that he parked at the other side of the loch.
“You'll hae tae cut back a lot o' this brush, lad, so that the shooters can git here on fit. There used tae be a road tae the boathoose but its aw grown ower wi' saplins. The only way here noo is by boat or on fit.”
I can see that there is the vestige of a path leading away from the boathouse through the woods, and I surmise it meets with the south drive at some point. We unload the tools from the boat and my lunch. There is a bush whacker, a machete, a bush saw and a bag of smaller tools – hand saws, hammer, nails etc.
“I'll hae tae leave ye noo, lad,” Jim says “I'll hae tae get back tae feed the pheasants and let some o' them oot intae the wids.”
I smile, knowing that these are hand-reared tame birds that will be the 'sport' for the shooters that are coming to the Estate in a few days.
“O.K. Jim, I'll make my way back to the house if I can hack my way through this jungle.” I say while waving the machete.
The next day we return to the boat house and it is a spectacularly beautiful morning, the sun rising benignly above us as Jim rows us across the loch. He stops rowing before we reach the middle of the loch. The boat drifts to a stop and we sit and wait as the water turns to glassy stillness until it mirrors the trees, the old boathouse and ourselves. It is a still life of serene magnificence.
“A grand day tae be alive, is it no?” Jim questions - or is it a statement of fact, for I am certainly not in disagreement.
“Yes, it is absolutely beautiful this morning, definitely a very good day to be alive.” I reply.
“Why wid ye want tae gae tae university, when ye can hae aw this?” Jim asks. I have no easy answer and maybe he is answering his own question. At the time I just mutter and say,
“I don't really know.”
The truth is I do know, and it is the age-old dilemma of materialism versus asceticism, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake versus practicality. However, the beauty of the morning transcends these deeper philosophical ideas that would be lost on Jim who lives absolutely in the world of reality and nature and not in the world of ideas and imagination.
Jim picks up the oars and pulls us across the loch - the reverie over, we must continue our work at the boathouse. From that turning point in the middle of the loch I would decide to go on to further my education and leave Jim to luxuriate in nature. There would be many times in the future when I would remember that moment in the middle of the loch and envy Jim. Sometimes I would wish I were back there, but in truth I know I made the right decision to choose the path to knowledge. While we could enjoy the experiences of beautiful moments in nature on the Estate, it would never truly belong to me or Jim.