Never Look Down
“Penny for them, Brody. Brass monkey weather...this! I was wondering where you’d got to; drowning somewhere, I assumed, in that ghastly sea of faces, and now you’ve presumably ‘come up for air’. There’s nothing like a lungful or two of bracing Highland air to put hairs on one’s chest; not yours, of course. Splendid send-off we gave her; spoiled only by that boring old fart of a vicar. The godforsaken man droned on interminably. Aunt Morag would not have approved; woman of few words, as she was...unless, of course, they were her own. Mind you, I notice he didn’t hang about too long with the committal; inclement as it is today. Nevertheless, a quite charming setting – one could see for miles from way up there on the hill, if not for that confounded ‘Scotch mist’.
It’s hard to imagine...this place without Aunt Morag. Funny – I keep half expecting to see her come bustling across the lawn...that ample bosom of hers in full swing, for all the world like a couple of kids having a pillow fight underneath the blankets.
‘Would’nae any of you bairns like a wee drop more of my homemade lemonade?’
And, she wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
One can’t help wondering what’ll become of this house now she’s gone. Probably end up an hotel, or an old folk’s home, depending, naturally, on who the lucky sod is she left it to. Eye openers – funerals. All manner of unsavoury creatures worm their way out of the floorboards when there’s a will in the offing. Enough to make one puke. Money’s sure not everything; you can’t take it with you, right enough, and I really am going to miss the old battleaxe. Speaking of the devil, Aunt Morag had the right idea; reaching the ripe old age of ninety, then drifting off in her sleep. Don’t you agree, Brody?”
“Sorry, Cameron. What was that you were saying? I was miles away. God, this is such a beautiful place, even when it rains. Why does it invariably rain at funerals, I wonder? Even at dear Auntie Morag’s. I was just looking at that bird up there. Look! Can you see it ... circling the Ben, drifting at the whim of the wind? I couldn’t imagine climbing halfway up these days, let alone all the way to the top, as we did then – and running, mostly. Bonkers, the lot of us! We did it once in thick fog. Remember? ‘A cinch’, you’d said. ‘Just hang on to me, Brody’, and I did. Especially at the scary bit, about midway or thereabouts, when the path grew so narrow, with a sheer drop a mere couple of feet away. Do you remember that, Cam.” Don’t suppose for one second he does.
“Sure do, Brody. ‘The Duke of York’s Challenge’, didn’t we call it? Our annual race to the top and back; last one home was a rotten egg! Couldn’t do it now; not enough puff left. Keep saying I’m going to give up the bastard weed...one of these days. They do say that ‘childhood is a place, not a time’, and that about sums it up, as far as this house is concerned; a kind of never-never-land atmosphere about it.
How she tolerated us little blighters, I’ll never know. A houseful of kids; each one related in some roundabout way. Aunt Morag did her best, on several occasions, to explain the entire family tree, but the whole business was beyond me. Yes...it became quite a ritual; Beau bounding across the lawn to greet us – first two weeks in August, regular as clockwork. I used to look forward to our annual pilgrimage so much.”
“Same here, Cam. I started crossing off the days on the calendar as soon as we broke up for the holidays, and yes – poor, dear old Beau. How I adored him. It never was the same... after I mean. Mind you, fifteen wasn’t a bad age. No wonder Aunt Morag took it so hard when he died, having raised him from a puppy; just like losing one of your own. Shame she never married...had kids of her own.
So…how are you, Cameron? I seem to remember hearing on the grapevine, you eventually settled down...actually tied that marital knot.”
Can’t believe I’ve just asked him that. What’s it to me anyway?
“Three times, as a matter of fact and three times it came horribly undone. No children involved – thankfully, or not...depending on which way one looks at it. And yourself? You didn’t...get married I take it. No rings, you see. I couldn’t help noticing.”
“No. Never did meet ‘Mr. Right’, or if I thought I had, it was usually a case of right man, right place, wrong time, or another permutation of that ilk. Over cautious – that’s me. The word ‘risk’ never seemed to be included in my vocabulary. ‘Librarian by name, librarian by nature’, isn’t that how you saw me, Cameron? How most people see me...full-stop.”
“Well, my dear, sweet, innocent Brody, you were ever the proverbial bookworm, you can’t deny that, and I assume that’s how you still keep the wolf from the door.”
“How did you guess, Cameron?” As if I needed to ask. “Boringly predictable, aren’t I?”
“Perhaps it’s high time to break that mould then, Brody. Do something impulsive for once. Must say – you do look rather dishy today; blue always your colour – brings out those ‘come to bed’ eyes of yours.”
“You still tease me, even now, don’t you Cameron? I doubt you will ever grow up. My goodness! Is that the time? Must be off – a train to catch; seriously I have. I bought a flat just outside Bristol – planned an overnight stop in Perth. Need to ring for a cab.”
Where is that mobile of mine? I know it’s in this bloody handbag, somewhere.
“Hang on a tic, Brody. How about I drop you at the station – save the cab fare, or better still, drive you home. I’m at a bit of a loose end for the next couple of days, as it so happens – a free agent now. Ended up a partner in a firm of City based solicitors, but woke up one morning and realised there was more to life than working. I think they were probably glad to see the back of me, if the truth be known. Bit of a square peg... Who was I to worry? Golden handshake into the bargain.
Tell you what – we could maybe grab a bite at the Caledonian, set us up for the journey. Then...ferret out an out of the way ‘Shangri-la’...spend the entire night making ‘mad, passionate love’. How does that grab you, Brody? You’re not listening, are you? That lock of hair you twist round and around your finger when you’re mulling things over in that butterfly brain of yours, is a dead give-away. Even after all these years, you haven’t changed one iota, apart from the conspicuous absence of those terrible pigtails. I could read you like a book, even then. Well, what do you say? My wish is your command, oh, mistress mine! Your carriage awaits – providing the old girl’s not in one of her temperamental moods.”
“Cam... I was thinking. Do you recall, when were kids, the nights when I had those bad dreams? Too many cheese and pickle sandwiches before I went to bed, so Aunt Morag said... You’d overhear me sobbing my heart out, through the bedroom wall. Next thing, there be that pad-pad of your feet on the lino, then you’d knock, quietly, on my door...creep in and snuggle up next to me – wipe my tears on your pyjama sleeve. Sometimes we’d lay there in the dark and you’d shine your torch, and we’d make shadow pictures on the wallpaper with our hands. Your butterflies were amazing!”
“And you Brody, were a dab hand with rabbits...and also, little old men smoking pipes! Ah – such bitter sweet memories. You were warm and soft, and smelt of aniseed balls, the heather on the moor, and damp-dog, all rolled into one. I’d stay until you were sound asleep – feel your breath, moist on my cheek – drag myself away, tiptoe back along the landing, dodging all those infernal squeaky bits. I knew exactly where not to tread; perfected it to quite a fine art.
What’s wrong, Brody? Something in your eye? Here – let me see. Or perhaps, you’re coming down with a cold. Then again, hay-fever, possibly? Heaven forbid, it’s the dreaded bird flu. Here, take my hanky, it is a clean one. Big blow now...after three. One…two...”
Infuriating man! I hadn’t thought about him in ages and now...this.
“Kindred spirits, weren’t we Cam? And yet, never once, did you take me seriously. The older I grew, the more sure I was, except... feeling ‘that way’ about one’s own cousin, wasn’t exactly done – not in ‘respectable’ society. I felt ashamed – dirty, even, but it still didn’t change how I felt. In a way, it made it all the more exciting, if I’m being honest. ‘Forbidden fruit’ and all that. You became my ‘dark secret’, and I locked you away, securely, as I thought, in some far corner of my mind – kidding myself I was over you; merely an adolescent schoolgirl crush.
And so, the years passed, and I had my fair share of boyfriends, but none of them lasted. How could they have done? It took me a while before I finally fell in I was comparing each and every one of them to you, so I just stopped looking.
For all I knew, you might have emigrated to Australia, settled down, and had at least a dozen kids, plus a yard full of chickens that laid perfect brown eggs every morning, in time for breakfast. Seriously though, born before our time – us two. These days, anything goes. A Casanova to the core, that’s you Cam, which beggars the question, why me? Now, I mean? ‘Lolitas’ hard to come by these days? Maybe you are getting a touch too long in the tooth... lost some of that fatal charm of yours along the way? And what about those wives of yours? How many affairs had you had before they left you, I wonder.”
“They did leave me, you’re right there Brody. Ginny, my first wife, died of breast cancer only a year after we were married. I loved her, very much, as it so happens, but that we won’t dwell upon. Marie, my second, left me for another woman, and as for dearest Amanda – she ran off with her personal trainer…to Melbourne, coincidentally. I don’t bear either of them any grudges though. ‘It takes two to tango’ – two sides, as there are, to most things in this life.”
“Cam, forgive me.” Me, and my big mouth again. “I’m so sorry about...Ginny, did you say her name was? It was thoughtless of me. I didn’t mean to be abrasive and yet, on second thoughts, maybe I did. When one’s hurt, one lashes out and I do hurt, and I’m confused as I don’t know what. Put it down to that boyish charm of yours that attracts the fairer sex like, ‘moths to a flame’, ‘pins to a magnet’, or any other clichéd expression that springs to mind, and I don’t want to be ‘just another pin’, Cam – least of all, a moth!
In any case, the whole idea of you and me is ludicrous. We’re both much too set in our ways. Well, I am at least. It just wouldn’t work, believe me, it wouldn’t. You’d end up hating me, and me you. You’d say I was a nag when I’d tell you, for the umpteenth time, ‘to put the top back on the toothpaste’, or to ‘please put the loo-seat down for once in your life’. No, I manage fine, thank you very much. Quite enjoy my own company, as a matter of fact, albeit a touch samey after a while. Speaking of which, how old are you now exactly? I’m fifty-eight…ish, so you’ve got to be sixty if you’re a day?”
“What if I am? What the hell difference does that make, Brody? Life in the old dog yet. One’s as young as one feels, and today I’m seventeen again!
Okay...in the past it’s true, one could have described me as having a somewhat cavalierish way with women; one of those individuals who always considered ‘the grass greener on the other side of the fence’, I suppose. Trouble was, I couldn’t see what had been right under my nose all along. Until now that is. And that was you, my dear, sweet Brody. By the way, I apologise for opening that ‘Pandora’s box’ of yours, and can only excuse my behaviour on the grounds of diminished responsibility. ‘Crazy for you, baby’! Isn’t that it goes?”
“And I’d have to be crazy and some, to be taken in by you, Cameron. And, what’s more, I’m not a little girl either – in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“Oh, I’d noticed, Brody – believe me I had, but for the moment, let’s put matters of the heart to one side and deal with more pressing issues. Right of this minute, I am absolutely famished. Could murder a steak! Those arty-farty canapé things were all well and good, but me – I’m more a beef and dripping sandwich man, myself. Let’s play ‘hooky’; go and grab ourselves a bite or two of ‘proper food’. Car’s parked just round the back. Race you! Thinking about it, maybe that’s not such a good idea...not looking at those ‘stilts’ of yours; damned attractive though they are. Nothing like stiletto heels and seamed stockings to set the pulses racing! Black suspenders too, I’ll be bound!”
“Make light of everything don’t you Cameron?”
Maybe I should shatter his illusion...tell him I’m wearing tights. Hats off, indeed, to Mary Quant. Suspenders were obviously invented by a man. They weren’t compelled to wear the wretched things; uncomfortable as sin. I’d sooner wear a straight jacket! On the other hand, maybe I’ll let him stew a while longer in his pathetic, juvenile fantasies.
“And what’s more, you must think I’ve come up on a banana boat... all that ‘grass is greener’ spiel. How many women, have you spun that yarn to? Come on, Cam, face the truth for once. Get real! Take a long hard look at the pair of us... nigh on OAPs! Me, a dried up old spinster, and you with your abysmal track record, plus a couple or two spare tyres into the bargain. People can be cruel, and I don’t think I’ve enough stamina to stave off all those ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes’ so to speak.”
You’ve played it safe all your life, Brody, you’re way too old now to become ‘the rebel’. It’s just not who you are, and you know it...no matter how hard he tries to convince you otherwise.
“Who gives a damn what people think and, for the record, spinster you may be, but dried up, certainly not! At least, I jolly well hope so. Let’s face it. By your own admission, way too much ground between us, so, logically, it only stands to reason we begin making that distance up. This isn’t a dress rehearsal – this is it, Brody. One performance only, and the curtain went up a while back. Let’s just get going, and see where the open road takes us. Let’s ‘drift at the whim of the wind’, as you so lyrically put it earlier.
Here she is...the old jalopy! Well, what do you think of my pride and joy...? Sod it! Would you look at that, Brody! Some wretched animal has left muddy footprints all over her bonnet! I’ve always had a thing for ‘Moggies’. Had her since new, more years ago than I care to remember. How about I put the top down – feel the wind in our hair? It might have stopped raining, but we’d better be quick, judging by those clouds.”
“She is a beauty, I do have to admit, Cam. White though. Must be a nightmare to keep clean. Come to think of it – those paw-prints look kind of ‘modernistic’. Maybe you should try your luck exhibiting it at Tate Modern.”
“Now who’s teasing who, Brody? And just for the record, she’s not white. Snowberry, or so the log-book reminds me, and yes, she is hellishly difficult to keep pristine, but at least it keeps me occupied; not that I’m ever pushed for things to do, you understand. There’s always a round of golf, if nothing else.”
“There’s something so very romantic about these old Morris Minors. Mind if I sit behind the wheel for a second? Thinking about it, these cars have much in common with you, Cameron. Old-fashioned they may well be, but they never lose their charm. Always wanted one myself; if I’d ever learned to drive, that is.”
“First time for everything, Brody, don’t they say? I could teach you, one of these days. Come on – shove over for now. I’m not that sylph-like, and I don’t bite, well only if you want me to. Pray, as never before, that she starts......Geronimo....first time at that! Just listen to her purr. Poop-poop! Open road here we come!
Something the matter, Brody? We’ve been driving now for at least a quarter of an hour and you’ve not said a word. That’s most uncharacteristic of you.”
“I was only thinking about what the others will say...when they miss us, Cam. That’s all, and...admiring the view.” Now the sun’s out, for a change.
“You kid yourself. Half of them won’t even notice – too interested in who’s getting what. Cousin Mark had his beady eyes set on Aunt Morag’s silver tea-service and that rather impressive looking oil-painting over the mantelpiece in the drawing room. Let them fight and squabble, if they must; you and I are well out of it. Never did like goodbyes, anyway, and we’ve already said ours; to the one person who really mattered.”
He never gives up, I’ll say that for him.
“Cameron, I told you the station would be fine, so here is quite far enough - perfect, thank you. It had quite slipped my mind, anyway, I’d bought a return ticket I wouldn’t dream of wasting. Don’t blame me, blame the Scottish blood coursing through my veins. Cameron – stop the bloody car! You should have turned right...way back there at the crossroads.”
Typical! We’re miles past the station now. Good job there was nothing coming; the idiot didn’t even slow down, and now he’s completely ignoring me!
“Can’t hear you, my sweetheart...not with the din this old girl makes when she’s chaffing at the bit. You see, I’m a touch ‘Mutt and Jeff’ these days; left my hearing trumpet at home, unfortunately. Hang on to your hat! Steak and chips, here we come … that’s if she can manage these bastard hills. She is puffing and panting a tad, and I wouldn’t fancy breaking down in the middle of nowhere, as we seem to be right now.
You OK, Brody? You look pale. Not surprising. Like a switchback ride – these roads. Mind you, there goes that lock of hair again, around and around. I’d bet my last Rolo you’re exercising that grey matter again.”
Listen to him. That’s all this is to his sort...just one great big laugh.
“Second nature to you, Cameron...this kind of thing. You’ve done it a million times before, and I notice you don’t deny it.”
He can’t think he can fool me by pretending to look concerned. Smug satisfaction is written all over his face. ‘Yet another conquest’, his eyes are saying, plain as day.
“But what about me and my feelings, Cam – because I do have them, you know? It’s like being a child again, desperately learning how to swim...way out of my depth, and wishing I’d not let go of the side.
Why have we suddenly stopped, Cameron? And please, don’t give me any of that ‘run out of petrol’ malarkey. You’d be wasting your precious breath, and you haven’t even answered my question yet.”
“Hush, for just one second, Brody. Cast your mind back. Remember the Duke of York’s Challenge; our hike up Ben Lomond? Well, there it is – to the right of that double, tree-lined ridge. I just caught sight of it. Follow the line of my finger.”
“Yes, yes – I see it now. It looks even more beautiful this evening – the sun on the heather. I’m weary, Cam...and I’m really cold. Maybe we should push on.”
“The wind sure does blow up the old kilt around these parts. Even those sheep look frozen to death, poor sods. I’ll nip out and put the top back up. Brody, you’re trembling. Here, put my jacket round your shoulders. That’s better, old thing. Can you remember what I used to say to you; then I mean – at the scary bit?”
Of course I could; every last, little word.
“I’d be shivering, and you’d have your arm around me... like now, and you’d say, with a wink, always with a wink, ‘Twirl around three times, cross your fingers and swear on your late hamster’s grave, you won’t look down.’ And I didn’t, and I won’t… not now or ever. Then you’d make me sing. How did it go? I forget. My mind’s a wall.”
“... and when they were up they were up
and when they were down they were down
and when they were only half way up
they were neither up nor down...
Much as us – eh, Brody?”
“Anyone ever told you this before, Cam, that when you sing, you sound the dead spit of Louis Armstrong...with laryngitis?”
But then again...it could start to grow on me.