With all this snow going on in Scotland at the moment, I am minded of a piece of my writing from many years ago. I was working at memorising Schubert's Wintereisse, and decided to have a walking holiday to assist the process. I often use walking for this purpose; sadly, the weather turned more wintry than my mood at the time. It became a rather sad and introcpective journey as I reflected on the sorry state of my life at the time.
I subsequently edited what I wrote, and published it on the Scottish Book Trust competition pages requsting writing on 'Journeys' in an attempt to pass it off as a piece of fiction. But the fact of the matter is that it is in fact a true story. Furthermore, that haunting song-cycle by Schubert is still a part of my life. I may perform some of these sad songs very soon... But first, the sadder story.
When my life collapsed some years ago, I took myself to Western Scotland in search of somewhere in the middle of nowhere to think, write, cry, or walk for miles. I was running away without a plan or a clue about where I would end up.
This failing struck me as I sat stuck on a train on the single-track route to Oban. My mood swung between maintaining my snivelling cold as the reason for my constant nose-blowing and letting my tears make pools in my glasses. I was heading towards the Gateway to the Islands of Mull, Iona, Colonsay, with no ambition to explore them. Just to survive the trip alone.
Yet the journey was sadder still – because I had no-one to share it.
As we set out, in my carriage a couple across from me busily chatted. Behind, two creepy-looking guys were joined by a pair of loud girls; elsewhere two lads were noisily japing around. A girl with chip-pan-crinkly hair and her freckly companion were patiently trying to ignore them.
Of the few lone travellers was an attractive woman with deep brown eyes who I’d seen on the platform at Queen Street. She might have cheered my spirits a little with her ephemeral beauty, though my longing to share the experience with someone was compromised by my emotional state.
Instead, I stared through the window. The scenery was overwhelming.
A stag bounded across the railway line at the train’s horn, disappearing into the glen. I saw through my tear-smeared spectacles snow-laden Christmas-card trees, frosted bracken, heathery mist across the half-frozen lochs. Colours one assumed were only possible through a lens-filter for the purposes of Scottish calendars and table-mats; purples, lush greens and paprikas, soft granite and water-colour blue through the icing-sugar snow; mist filtering the ice-white winter sun.
Every hue matched the intensity of my loneliness as I thought of what to write.
Our train stopped several stations short of our destination due to an engineering carriage being frozen to the rails down the line. The sunset orange was mixing with the purple granite like a bruise, and the chill entered the train when smokers periodically went out onto the frosted platform. A taxi came for those catching the four o’clock boat to
Mull, while everyone else waited for wrong-sized
My sandwich was half-eaten – I couldn’t breathe through my nose and had to hold my breath while chewing. Glad that we, and not the half of the train that split to travel to Mallaig, ended up with the snack- trolley, I took advantage of free coffee and crisps. Drying my eyes, I stood up and let someone pass who flashed a beautiful smile, before I went to collect my coffee.
It was the woman I’d seen at Queen Street. I thought of my Ex’s absurd jealously and yet, her understanding of my need to feel loved, to be smiled at – or to be pitied. My fascination for people, their stories and lives, their shallows and depths, their devils and deeds. I want to be at one with them, to touch their souls: help them discover their 'organismic' selves.
Finally we were stuffed into a mini-bus, people sitting on bags, on friend’s knees; the one with the brown eyes and smile in the front with another passenger who alighted before we reached Oban. I’d nearly sat in the front seat, where I could have heard her story as she answered the taxi-driver’s anodyne chatter.
This is what I do when I can’t cope: I get into people’s lives, soaking them up like a sponge. But my heart was empty. Soon the banter and conversation of the train was reduced to a deathly silence; punctuated only by the driver’s apologetic ‘Ho-ho-ho.’
Feeling drained, I sat in a stupor, as if experiencing the journey from a distance. I was far from home, and the nearer we got to Oban, the more I realised the meaningless of my mission. I’d booked into a cheap and even-less cheerful hotel tucked in a back street behind the empty station, next to a scrubby-looking bowling club.
I ventured out into the frozen night for fish and chips and beer. As I settled into greasy nylon sheets, I wished I’d arrived in time to buy a bottle of the local Malt at the off-licence. The lack of anaesthetic and irritating tickle in my throat made sleep a vacant hope.
Such was the story of my sojourn. I didn’t make it to the countryside to scream my head off as intended. Nor did I get on a boat and visit the multi-coloured, mono-religious lands of the Western Isles. As I passed like a ghost in and out of the streets, all I could feel was the intoxicating presence of.. the person I was trying to shake off. I walked into a shop and the radio was playing Joni Mitchell.
My ears barely pricked up: the music was already in my head.
I walked up to McCaig’s Tower where the low sun left long, haunting shadows; to Pulpit Hill where nobody ever preached; then the distillery where I forwent the hour-long tour and my ‘free’ glass of Malt. That evening I sat in a spit-and-sawdust Inn on the North pier, ear-wigging on the alien-sounding West Coast accents, feeling like a foreigner.
I had to get back.
On the return journey, opposite me a jolly man who was drinking from a bottle of Casillero del Diablo tried to make conversation. Am I drawn to those who aren’t afraid? Is the only person I’m afraid of myself. Or the one who was in my blood like holy wine: I could drink a case, and still be on my feet. She was as far from me as I was from home. Whatever I had lost, I still had myself. So I thought.
My companion raised his glass of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Cellar of the Devil.
I declined his cheer, and took out my pen.