Memories swarmed into Mrs Robertson’s mind like prowling wildcats; days of youth & drain’d promise, nights of wonder & haranguing melancholy. Life’s toleraby engaging carousel.
‘What have I achiev’d?’ she ask’d herself. ‘Indeed, what was there to achieve?’
She remember’d her village under the mountain; the sad, sad parting from her parents those two summers since; & the hard days of service that follow’d. Memories drew talons, clawing her young psyche with jagged slashes, which she shrugg’d off, somehow, one-by-one, despite the wincing pain.
Yet, here she was, a young English bride, sunny-haired & hopeful-eyed, with lips that slowly parted before she smiled, making strangers want to kiss them. One of these, of course, had been Mr Robertson, her recently acquired brand-new husband, & the only one of the random admirers who – following the aforementioned smile & its glorious aftermath, when the softest regions of her face broke out into attendant dimples – had dared to ask her name. Ever since, in similar circumstances, lest anybody should think that this smile which fluttered like a handkerchief dropped into a Roman fountain was meant for them, she would quickly look up for her dear Charles – who was a foot taller or so – to find him tenderly reciprocating her glance of love with a gaze of golden adoration.
“I wish I could meet your parents,” he had said on of these occasions, completely out of the blue. “I’m sorry darling if that sounds selfish, but they must be very special people to have created such a treasure trove as you.”
“One day you will,” she replied, not knowing then that she would refuse to even invite them to her wedding. “Auld grievances,” she had cited, without giving a single iota of detail. The only thing she ever really told Charles about them was that, despite all the young men in her mountain village vieing for her mother’s hand, her mother had only ever wanted her father. “Such loyalty, such monamour,” she assured Charles, “was the definitive streak running thro’ the females of my family.”
Many people thought Charles was her brother, so similar were their thick flossy hair & rabbit bimbling eyes. They had little money between them, but the highest of hopes that one day they would be well-off enough to never have to worry about money & its rat race acquisition. A couple of well-paying pension plans & lots of scuttling grandchildren to spend them on were hardly Olympian ambitions; but to a young couple deeply entrenched in each other & in love, there flew dozens of golden eagles soaring through the misty gullies of their living dreams.
Charles had recently got an agricultural job among the epic & fertile plains of Aberdeenshire – auld farmtoun country – where he had obtain’d a friendly impression of everybody & much public trust in his own abilities. His boss had given him a couple of weeks leave to celebrate both his coming of age at one & twenty & his marriage to his younger wife.
“It must be Arran,” he had said while discussing potential honeymoons, “I went as a student & simply had the best of times! Akuta same…”
“What!” demanded Abigail.
“O sorry, akuta same, it means ‘deadly shark’ in Japanese. My classmate at the time had taught me the phrase on the ferry as we cross’d once to Arran. I will remember it always.”
Mrs Abigail Robertson found herself on that very same ferry, perched on a Calmac deck one gusty but sunny day, swiftly steaming west, with the boat being chas’d by three playful gulls. As the seabreeze made a rustle like rich raiment, or the whispering gossip of inquisitive neighbours, Charles stepp’d back from the rail & took a seat in those identical wooden chairs so beloved by the Calmac ferry company.
“I’ll be with you in a minute darling,” smiled Abigail who, heady as a hedonist in heaven, peer’d forwards towards the haunch’d Isle of Arran, widening steadily towards the west.
Altho’ Charles was only one & twenty, & she barely eighteen, to her he appeared almost godlike in his age, a piramid of maturity built up in some wise, old epoch of time. Her own life seem’d as simple as it had been short. She only could remember being a little girl, & then the next thing that occur’d was Charles Robertson, & positively the next thing she remembered of importance was being Mrs Charles Robertson. Her later adolescence & those two years in service were nothing now but grassy dewdrops dissipating in the morning sun. The one thing that never left her mind, however, was the mountain which towered above her village in the Lake District of England. Its beauty had been preserved by those who care the most about preserving beauty. Wordsworth had prevented rail companies sending steaming chains of dragon carriages down the unpolluted valleys. Her grandfather had also beat back the sniffing scouts of coal, mineral & timber companies, all wishing to skin & gut their forested mountain like a skillfully hunted piece of game. He had also said that her love for Charles was her love of a baby, & then but a baby in love. He had opined as much on a visit Scotland to ostensibly meet his potential grandson-in-law, but really because he loved to fish, & to his own mind the rivers which flow’d from the Cairngorms were the richest of all.
All this, of course, was five & forty years ago, for you know how old Abigail was when she returned to Arran last summer? Three & sixty!
Five & forty years ago, as I was saying, Abigail Robertson was exacting, with some excitement, her first visual memories of the mountains of north Arran, where Goat Fell points at the adventurous spirit with a rocky & beckoning finger, saying, ‘climb me.’ After landing at the port of Brodick, Mr & Mrs Robertson of Rhynie Farm Cottages, Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, were seated in the back of a primitive, yet efficient taxi. They travelled at a gentle speed for six miles, following the coastal road as far as the sprawling ribbon-village of Corrie, decamping for a week up front in its bustling hotel. Their room overlooked the sea, & they made love the very moment the maid had closed the door behind her. The five shilling tip thrust into her hand by an excitable Mr Robertson had ensured her rapid exit.
With a bridal veil thrown over her neck & bosom, & her fine bright tresses carelessly yet gracefully arranged, she appeared to the eyes of her enchanted lover rather like a vision than a creature of mortal beauty; altho a countenance of nervousness would accompany her first kisses as a man & wife alone. The sweetness & the ecstasy of those moments would penetrate Abigail’s waking moments for an entire lifetime, & hearing the whispering breath of Charles’ vows once more in her ear, would echo just as long. Then came the puzzle-dance of passion, awaiting the moment when all the protuding pieces fitted together in the lock of love – limbs with limbs, eyes with eyes. It was a moment such as happens with only the truest of soul mates. All the different versions of themselves from across the aeons of human existence, reuniting in lovemaking for the first time as those particular avatars, were in that room, fractured facets of divinity form’d by their own recognizable shapes.
The newlyweds arose in the finest of spirits, as golden as the summer sun which had enticed a family of seals onto the rocks by Corrie harbour, to silently bathe in those sweet & splendid rays. Abigail had pointed them out to her husband as they walked the half mile south to the whitewashed cottages of High Corrie, perched sporadically above the sea like a Tuscan hilltown. Beyond High Corrie lay the mountains of Arran, where one hour later, Charles Robertson, veering from the paths with the elation of consummated love, had leapt onto a pile of brush which covered a long forgotten pothole, & vanished utterly from the earth.
It took everything for the good people of Corrie to contain Mrs Robertson in her grief. A couple had to stop her wading into the sea, her pockets full of heavy round stones. Another had to find her grandfather in England, for he was the only person Abigail wanted to see. The Hotel manager had encouraged the matter, for it seemed that after three weeks Mrs Robertson was rapidly running out of money, but was still obstinately refusing to leave. Each day she would retrace the steps she had made on that most magical of mornings, remembering the laughter, the chatter & those beauty spot embraces, strung like a pearl necklace over the mountainsides of Arran. Then, at the pothole’s mouth – fenced off now, for safety – she would sit, tearless, day after day, in whatever manifold variety of weather, simply staring into the profundity of the planet’s undercrust. Even by the onset of the Autumn storms, no power could win her from the place whence her Charles had gone.
Every effort was made to find him, but alas, in those days, pitcaving techniques were very much in their rudimentary infancy. Specialized equipment like nylon kernmantle rope, & specialist methods such as Single Rope Technique were decades away. The deepest they had got was 20 ft down, where a sharp-angl’d ledge would have bundl’d Charles into the black darkness of the mountain’s internal chambers. It was deem’d too dangerous to attempt any further probing, & the matter was deem’d closed. If there was a time worse for her than the moment her husband dissappeared, it was the one when they told her his body would never be found.
Mrs Robertson went back to her little cottage near Rhynie & lived there for the rest of her days. The rooms of the cottage that was to be their home remained bare & unadorned, as Charles had seen them last. She could not bring herself to alter them in any way, just in case he ever came back. She knew he would never, but unresolved grief is a far greater mind monkey than grief itself. If only he had been buried in a nice Scottish kirkyard, under the sweetest air of the northern climes, some green place lying open to the sun, where she could go & scatter flowers on his grave, where she could sit & look forward amid her tears to the time when she would lie side by side with him – they would be seperated only by short life, but united for eternity. Now, it seemed, that unless she returned to the island of all her woes – a thought which made her recoil as if seeing a scorpion primed at her feet – they would remain apart forever.
For Mrs Robertson, her life had become tainted with the taste of shame. Charles had been beloved in his community, his family adored him, & now he was gone. The young English siren had lured him to his doom on the jagged rocks of the Clyde. But Abigail was a stoic lass & did the best she could; working in service, then opening a little shop once she’d saved up enough money. Of course she never remarried, how could she? The ambrosial memories of her honeymoon night could never be desecrated by lieing with another man. There was much interest of course, a veritable Penelope surrounded by suitors, but no man could ever win so much as a courteous half-smile, let alone alone one resembling that which had won, for her, dear Charles.
It was early in the last spring that Mrs Robertson received a letter from Arran. It was penn’d by a young man who, with a quaint & polite formalism, had offer’d to find her Charles. The wind-blown hollow of her heart suddenly gush’d with roseate blood, straining to burst out of her chest. It took two cups of tea, a small glass of sweet sherry & a phone call to her best friend to finally finish off the letter. It went on to explain how the young man’s name was Connor Syme, he had been a student of Geology at St Andrews, that he was a passionate explorer of cave systems, & that he thought he had obtained the right & proper modern equipment to find her Charles.
After five & forty years Mrs Robertson suddenly found the will to live, & to live life for as long as possible. That her beloved Charles might be afforded a proper burial near their little cottage energized every effort of her being to beautify their little home. The trifling articles, curiosities & pictures she had bought with Charles on their honeymoon were finally brought out. She would ask how such & such a thing look’d, turning her pretty head to some kind visitor, as she ranged them on the walls. Now & then she would have to lay the picture down & cry a little, silently, as she remembered where Charles had told her it would look best. She felt him with her in each room as she furnish’d them to the plans they had made in their minds, hand-in-hand on the curved beach of Ardrossan, as they gazed across to Arran in love. One room she never went into; the one they had meant to have for the nursery. It is not that she never imagin’d children in there, however, for often times curly headed cherubs that look’d just like Charles did clutter her cottage’s hearth & hall.
Two weeks later Mrs Robertson was back on Arran for the first time in almost half a century. She had alter’d very much in that time, but was fill’d with a spirit quite unchang’d from that which energized her honeymoon.
“This is a good day to be alive,” she said to herself, “no, every day is a good day to be alive, this is a much better day to be alive.”
With difficulty temper’d by determination she climb’d the same steep paths she had once worn to the bedrock in those terrible weeks of limbo following her husband’s disappearance. The pothole was still safely secured; the sign was as bright as ever, but the fences had been worn to crumbling pastel cadavers in the wake of countless Atlantic storms.
She watch’d on in silence as Connor & his small team open’d up the pothole & scrambl’d into the claustraphobic core of the mountain. An hour or so later, Connor haul’d himself out of the inky blackness & with a beaming smile said, “we’ve found him.” It took several minutes for Mrs Robertson to finally stem the oceanic floods of tears which had well’d up from the wasted grieflands of her soul. But slow the flow certainly did, & in the silence between her subsequent & intermittent sobs, Connor spoke again.
“I think it best, Mrs Robertson, that you do not see the skeletal remains, unless of of course you really wanted to, but I do advise against it. However, by some miracle of dry air, your husband’s jacket has been completely preserv’d, if a little dusty. Would you like to see it?”
Thes were the happiest moments in the later life of Abigail Robertson of Rhynie Farm Cottages, Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, & within a week the jacket was hanging in the once unused nursery in their cottage, perfectly clean & pinn’d to the wall besides her own bridal gown, which she never once thought to throw away. She loved just sitting in the room with a small peat fire burning, & to simply remember.
Her husband’s funeral had been more of a celebration of life than a memorial to death. Relations of his she had never seen of every generation had attended, with a couple of his nephews coming from as far away as Canada. Once all the family fuss had died down, she would attend daily to his grave; fresh flowers once a week, a wee prune of the rose brush & a gaze at the turf beside him where one day they would be truly reunited.
This dream of hers was not even disturbed by that singular strange evening when, of a sudden, she felt a compulsary tugging at her psyche while sitting in the nursery turn’d bridal shrine. ‘What was in the jacket pocket,’ she began to enquire with some force. It turn’d out there had been something in his pocket – a letter, adressed to a certain Albert Alexander of Dippen Farm, Arran. Of course she open’d it, & was intrigued by the Japanese characters at the head of the page. It was clearly her husband’s handwriting, & she began to read;
I long to see you
I have married a young woman. She is good for me. But she is not you. We are staying in the Corrie Hotel for a week. Please come & take a room where we can meet &…
Mrs Robertson suddenly cut the reading short, & with the slow & deliberate motion of those dutiful wives who keep their husband’s secrets, as the letter was toss’d into the fire the fine wine memories of her darling Charles were tenderly, & forever, preserved.