It is to be a country hotel affair. Stags with their bodies missing, Highland cattle grazing beyond a barbed-wire fence. Hills, always in the distance.
‘Tartan carpets, I’d wager,’ Mum calls over her shoulder. She feels to the back of the wardrobe for her gladrags. Her hair drips down onto her dressing gown.
‘I can’t believe we’re actually going,’ I reply, leaning over the counter in the bathroom, lipstick poised. I decide against it and apply a thin coat of mascara as a compromise. ‘But as long as Granny’s happy.’ I come into Mum’s room and sit on the bed.
‘We do need to go, really.’ She pulls on a thin blue dress and tops it with a white cardigan. They hug rather than hide the weight loss. ‘It’s best we show our faces at the reception. You know what Granny’s like about my perfect little brother.’
‘Does everybody know?’ Fiona asks, entering the room, wrapped in a towel and on the hunt for the hairdryer.
‘I would think so,’ Mum answers. ‘But it’s Uncle Simon and Julia’s special day. Nobody will talk about it.’
We hear Daniel come out of his bedroom and shuffle into the bathroom. He does not lock the door. I listen for the electric toothbrush but there is only silence. Perhaps he is standing in front of the mirror, eyeing the spattering of spots on his chin and deciding to ignore them. After a moment I hear him opening the cupboard for Dad’s razor. I picture him stroking it above his upper lip, shaving the down that Mum still does not believe is there. He is only fifteen.
The reception is being held in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, in a hotel on the banks of the River Spey. The venue’s website promises the full Scottish experience in silver italics and tasteful purples: a piper to welcome the guests, local ales, traditional Scottish cuisine, and mountain views with the canapés.
During the forty-minute drive, Fiona accuses Daniel of smelling of Dad’s aftershave.
‘There was still some left in the bottle,’ he answers, looking out the window. The pothole-pocked road is lined with pine forests, and beyond, blue hills on the horizon mark the Lairig Ghru, the great pass that ploughs through the Cairngorms. I scroll my phone for a podcast, Fiona pushes her earphones deep into her ears and Mum turns on the radio.
There is just a brief stilling of the air as we enter the hotel lounge. Not silence, but a holding of breath, a beat, as though somebody momentarily cupped their hands around the room. We make our way along the purple tartan carpet (Mum had been right).
‘Books, Judith.’ Daniel points to a bookshelf carved with thistles, with leather-bound Walter Scotts and Robert Louis Stevensons lined up in patriotic purples and greens.
I nod, but pass them by. A degree in Scottish literature, only just completed, and yet the thought of reading, of thinking, jolts me into reaching for my laptop these days.
I feel a nudge on my left side. Fiona points to a stag’s head on the wall. ‘Poor deer, as Dad would’ve said.’ We clutch each other, snorting with laughter.
The heads flick back and forth towards us from the tables we are passing, and my smile fades. Fiona’s hands flit about the sides of her head for the ghost of her earphones. We look everywhere that is not at anybody. Chequered tartan carpets, paintings on the walls: mountains, stags, grey clouds, cliffs. Is that Glencoe? The Lost Valley? The gorge?
We round the final corner and enter the main function room.
‘Cue the music,’ Daniel says, and we are immediately surrounded by clucking family members, steering us towards Uncle Simon and Now-Auntie Julia.
Simon throws his arms around the four of us, managing to hold onto his glass of careering amber liquid like grim death. ‘Drunk,’ Mum mouths over the top of his head, rolling her eyes at me. He kisses our heads, tottering a little.
‘Thank you, Helena,’ he says, ‘for coming.’
‘Congratulations, you two,’ she says, declining a glass of Prosecco offered by a passing waiter.
Daniel is the tallest. He looks above the heads and bodies moving around him, up to the high windows framed by dark curtains. I follow his gaze. There is a branch poised diagonally across the glass outside. It seems the only stationary object in sight. Quieter than Now-Auntie Julia, whose frantic so gratefuls and didn’t expect you to comes could be spoken underwater. Mum placates her with a couple of nods and another congratulations.
My attention is wrested from the branch.
‘Here’s Granny,’ Mum says.
‘My lovelies,’ Granny says, all tartaned up, with something Celtic around her neck. She gathers us all in her arms and I am grateful for the momentary darkness, pressed against her chest.
Finally, Granny releases us, holding us at arm’s length. ‘How are you all.’ A funereal plummet in tone. It is not a question. ‘You’ve all done so well to get here. Simon is just thrilled. He made sure to have the wedding in Scotland for you, you know—’
‘We do,’ Mum says.
‘—so glad you didn’t cancel outright. His colleagues from Cambridge came up specially, you know!’
I find Fiona’s eyes and the two of us break from the crowd, only to find ourselves face-to-face with a great-aunt. Possibly Aileen. Or is it Martha?
The woman beams maniacally. ‘Wonderful weather for it, Judith, eh?’ She gestures towards the bright windows. ‘How was the journey here? And how are you all?’
Mum peels herself away from Granny, moving in front of Fiona and me. She shows some teeth to the aunt. ‘The A9? No bother at all. Potholes everywhere, though. Of course.’
The aunt barely titters. Her eyes, tinged with a red-wine hue, are fixed surprisingly steadily on Daniel.
‘How are you?’ she says, again.
‘Doing fine, thanks,’ Mum answers. Fiona and I nod. ‘Managing. Keeping busy helps.’
‘Such an awful shock.’ The aunt leans in. A snatch of musky perfume. ‘Were David’s injuries really terrible?’ she whispers.
I lock my eyes on the windows beyond the aunt’s head, at the branches, the sky. There is a taste in my mouth as though I have not brushed my teeth for several days. I want to be alone on a hillside with a backpack filled with sandwiches and orange juice, and only red kites for company. Daniel stares at the aunt, who rounds on him.
‘I believe you were out walking with him, dear? When it happened?’
‘Yes,’ Daniel answers. He points over his shoulder. ‘Toilet.’ I watch him walk away. Fiona follows him.
‘The poor dear must be traumatised,’ the aunt says, with stoat’s eyes following the back of Daniel’s head.
‘Photos!’ somebody shouts from the depths of the room.
I go into the Ladies and stoop to check that the shoes visible below the closed cubicle door are Fiona’s. I knock on the door.
I hear a rustling, a click of plastic, then, ‘yes?’
I laugh. ‘What’re you listening to?’
‘The Traveling Wilburys.’
Loud, feather-light lyrics and jangling, fill-your-head twelve-string guitars. Like one of those rainy days that soaks you through the second you step outside. So beautifully unimportant, so tempting to drown in. Then again, nothing much had seemed important since Glencoe two weeks ago. Dad’s skull, winking at Daniel from the bottom of a ravine. Strange to think that Mum, Fiona and I had been eating mediocre tapas in Fort William at the time. The portions were enormous, the sauce on the patatas bravas too sharp and red. Haggis fritters. How ludicrous.
‘All talking about me out there! Must have nothing better to do!’ Fiona says, in a deep Dad voice. ‘Pity it isn’t about how dead attractive I am.’
I smile. ‘He’d be livid they’re not talking about his new goatee.’ I wash my hands for something to do. ‘It’s photo time,’ I say to the closed cubicle door. ‘Do you want to come?’
‘I’m okay, thanks.’
Mum grabs Daniel, who has wandered back from the toilets, and positions us both in front of her for the group photo with Granny, Uncle Simon and Now-Auntie Julia. ‘Where’s Fiona?’
‘Listening to music in the toilets. Just leave her.’
Mum chuckles, as she always does whenever Fiona displays her preference for earphones over human company. I place both hands on Daniel’s shoulders and smile for the camera. It almost reaches my eyes, a moment of clarity through the fizz of a badly-tuned radio.
Yet the next few seconds bring the static crashing around me again. Daniel’s shoulders lurch from beneath my hands as he twists in the direction of the bar and the source of the clatter, his jaw a clenched fist. An apologetic waiter is urging people away from the three glass bottles now in shards on the floor, in a froth of dark liquid. Daniel’s chest rises and falls as he looks down. Uncle Simon roars with laughter. Only I see the whiteness of Daniel’s eyes, like tautly poached eggs.
‘What was that?’ he asks.
‘Just somebody at the bar,’ I say.
Uncle Simon pats Daniel’s shoulder and takes another swig of his drink. ‘Relax, son.’ He walks away.
Daniel turns to Mum. She squeezes his hand.
I wander towards the bar. Perhaps a Guinness. Dark and absorbing, like the swimming holes of the River Feshie. Tiny nitrogen bubbles funnelling like silt. I think of the last Guinness I had, in a Glaswegian pub with Dad. Before a concert by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Strauss and Mahler. I scan the room. I want everybody to know why I am ordering a Guinness and not a Strongbow or a local ale—and yet, Dad was never one for attributing significance to arbitrary events. What he called his ‘bullshit-o-metre’ was always in fine working order.
‘Pint of Guinness, please.’
Only mountain paths, rocky spits of land by the coast and lochs provoked anything remotely spiritual from Dad. His religion, his passion, his maker could be found only in the ravages of heather-covered moorland, in the strange blue light of the Scottish west, in the final Glencoe crevasse. Am I deluded for seeing Dad in the birds of prey over Inverness, the dolphins at Chanonry Point, and the richness of the Torridon Munros? It is a whimsical sort of way to think of someone falling into a ravine.
The girl behind the bar looks at me as she pulls the pint. She opens her mouth.
What’ll it be this time? The sound he made when he hit the ground? How did you feel precisely one minute after you heard he’d died? Speak up, please, and smile for the camera. I snap my eyes away but the bar girl is starting to say something about hoping she will not sound out-of-line, but—
‘I don’t mean to be rude,’ I say, ‘but you probably will. Excuse me.’ I nod to the bar girl and turn to walk away.
What were his injuries? How serious were they? Relax, son.
The bar girl raises her voice after me. ‘Actually, I overheard that your dad passed away in an accident and I just thought it might help to know that . . . well, mine too.’
I look back at her, the Guinness still in my hand.
‘I’m not about to ask how it happened, or tell you that there are no words, because there are always plenty. I just thought you’d like to know that the room isn’t entirely filled with insensitive arseholes.’
I double back and sit down on a barstool.
‘Are you alright?’ the girl asks.
‘Not particularly. It was two weeks ago.’ I sip my pint. It tastes as it should, as though it has been drawn up from deep in the earth.
‘What the hell are you doing at a wedding so soon afterwards?’
‘Miss the wedding of the century because of a little mishap like that? Granny thinks it’ll cheer us up.’
‘I had to do my National 5 exams straight after my dad died. An accident offshore. I was fifteen. Nobody ever really asked if I wanted to do them a year later. Oh, they went through the motions, of course, but I could count the people who actually cared if I was okay on one hand. The people who would cancel a dinner date to come and see me if I was feeling crap. There generally aren’t many of them kicking around.’
The girl reaches across the counter and grips my arm. In that grip are a thousand platitudes compressed into something much better.
‘I know you are,’ she says. There is a queue forming behind me, but the bar girl does not move. ‘Tell me about your dad, not the accident.’
I think. ‘He’s still in our family group-chat.’
The bar girl nods.
‘He had a weird penchant for buying cheap reading glasses. He liked history books. Max Hastings was bedtime reading. And music. Anything from Mozart and Mahler to Paul Simon. Frank Zappa, Steely Dan. Their solo stuff, too. Walter Becker more than Donald Fagen. I have to agree.’
‘You actually liked the stuff your dad listened to?’
‘Yep. All three of his children inherited his music taste. It was something he was ridiculously proud of.’
The bar girl smiles. ‘My dad liked all the classics. Beatles, Stones, anything like that. I rebelled, though. I’m an emo girl through and through.’
‘Most of the people here aren’t interested in Dad,’ I say. ‘Only in his—’ I look around the room for a few seconds. Table. Chair. Lights. Antlers. ‘—Body.’
The bar girl folds her tattooed arms.
‘Do you sometimes . . .’ Table. Chair. Lights. Table chair lights antlers table. ‘Sometimes I catch myself wondering what he looked like. Which . . . which bones were broken. Do you?’
‘I did,’ the bar girl says. ‘It passes.’
‘Daniel, my brother, sees what he really looked like, but I imagine terrible things . . . I find I almost want to.’
‘You’re not weird, or mad. It’s grief. You almost can’t get enough of it. I was the same.’ She straightens up and eyes the baying queue behind me. ‘There is an abundance of idiots to serve. But please,’ her eyes, ringed with eyeliner and mascara, are soft, ‘please take a break. Please go for some fresh air. Please get away. And please be kind to yourself.’
I take my pint outside, avoiding the smokers’ spot by the fire door, and head for the car park. Nobody is about, but I am not alone. A buzzard is on the wing. The evening sun lines its underbelly with golden-brown motes, the same colour of the Guinness as I hold it up to the sun.
Some of the gravel from the car park has nestled into my sandals. The only time I ever tried high heels was in a shoe shop for about ten seconds, before I resigned myself to a life of using sandals as posh shoes. I let the pieces settle under my bare feet for now, my eyes firmly on the bird. Sometimes things disappear when you stop keeping an eye on them.
The buzzard gives me a fine display, coursing closer. I raise my glass to it. The Guinness is a good one, cold and thick, complete with a clover imprint in the pillowy head. I take a sip. The buzzard stills in the air, quivering on the breeze in a gentle rhythm like the chugging darkness of ‘Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore’ by Walter Becker, and then, with a final sweeping curve, the bird soars mountain-ward towards the Cairngorms—beyond the barbed-wire fence, across the fields of Highland cattle, far away from the room full of dismembered stags and no words.
I remain outside for a few moments and polish off the Guinness. Before going back inside, I shield my eyes from the setting sun and look towards the mountains, where the buzzard has flown.
‘Bye, Dad,’ I say, and crunch back inside. The gravel is still in my sandals.
Lead Image by Phillip Glickman