Conall’s family lived in one of those long, whitewashed stone-built cottages, with small awning windows along the front and back and none in the narrow side walls that peak in a chimney. It was set a little back from the road, on a rise yellow with high, flowering gorse. The Defender roared as Conall raced it up that last bit before killing the engine in a choked stutter. When I stepped out, the coconut smell of the gorse washed over me. The sea, on the other side of the road, was dark, and quiet.
Conall took me inside. Everything was crowded with boots and coats and people. The air was steamy with the smell of boiling cabbage, and wet dog, and many conversations being carried on at once. In the living room a table was being set while a boy and a girl were hastily finishing homework. Three older men in work clothes were discussing something in Gaelic in the hall next to the front door. In the kitchen a matronly woman, her long hair streaked with silver, was directing more young people to cut bread and fill jugs. Lamps were spaced haphazardly, so that some areas were gloomy and others brightly lit, increasing the sense of buzzing chaos.
Conall shouted over the din to several people that I was “Danny” and that I would stay for tea. Several people nodded to me. The boy at the table, who was maybe a year or two younger than me, and who had dark, curly hair, bright eyes, and a chipped tooth, looked up from his homework and asked something in Gaelic. Conall laughed and answered back. I understood that he made it clear that my name was “Daniel”, not “Dana.”
Then he said to me “Masel buist fault tae yowes” and left again. I had no idea what that had meant. A young woman, maybe three or four years older than me, greeted me. Her English had the same beautiful Scottish sing-song, and the dry, harsh “r”s, but was a lot more intelligible than most of her family.
“Hi Danny. A’m Iona. Pleased tae meet ye. Tae’s awmost ready. D’ye want tae wash oop?”
And she showed me a tiny bathroom next to the kitchen. It had just about space for one deep, chipped enamel sink, and a loo with a rickety, wooden seat, and two feet, and it smelled very strongly of soap.
I closed the door, and breathed deeply. I washed my face and my hands rather thoroughly, and combed wet fingers through my shaggy and by now shoulder long hair. I looked down on myself: I was wearing my patched fatigue trousers, and – under an old black leather motorcycle jacket – a black T with bold, mustard yellow letters inviting everyone to “Guess where I’m pierced”. I had appropriated the T from an Australian backpacker on Skye. At the time I had thought it was pretty funny, but now I felt decidedly uncomfortable in it. But I couldn’t very well keep the jacket, that I had taken along when I’d left the sleeping Ruth, buttoned up to hide it, could I?
So, when I came out again and Iona took my jacket to hang it on a hook in the hall that had already two or three other pieces of garment hanging from it, the boy at the table nudged the girl and pointed out the words on my chest. Both giggled.
Iona said something to them in Gaelic, rather sharply, and they began gathering up their pens and papers. People filed into the room and sat down on chairs.
“Hey! Ta’ss ma sait!” the boy shouted when someone else wanted to sit on the chair he had been on before.
“Awricht, awricht, Sim. Dinna tak a sparey. Whit’s wi aw yir gibbles on ma ane cheer?”
“Chust sit on Conall’s fer noo!”
Sim – that’s pronounced shim – cleaned up his mess, and by the time he was done, everybody had taken their seat and the only one that remained for me was the one next to him, from which he just then removed his book and papers.
I was officially introduced to Mr. and Mrs. MacLeod – he was one of the three men from the hall, a broad-shouldered, big-handed man with closely cropped, steel grey hair, and a dashing scar on the right side of his face; she was the woman the kitchen with the silver in her hair, and eyes surrounded by a nest of crow’s feet.
When Mr. MacLeod shook my hand across the table, he greeted me, but left my name hanging, expecting me to complete it: “Daniel…?”
“Balnchard, Sir. Daniel Blanchard.”
Gerald Daniel Blanchard is a Canadian master thief, who burgled amongst other places an Austrian castle in 1998, and who had finally been caught in 2007. I had followed his process with fascination and awe.
“Thank you for sharing your supper with me,” I added. “It was very kind of Conall to invite me.”
Mr. MacLeod seemed pleased, and for the rest of the meal, I was mostly left alone. Soon enough the necessary information transfer that always occurs when a large family sits down together took up everybody’s attention. And when Conall came back, he had to explain about the cut on his face – he had gotten plastered and fallen in to a barbed wire fence – and then about the sheep, or yowes, he had bought.
Only Sim kept quietly bugging me.
“Whaur ye frae, mo caritsh?”
“Uss’at sae? Whaurawa frae tare?”
“Och, aye? Nae frae Quebec?”
“Bit Blanchard uss a French naem, nae?”
“Yes, but people have French names outside of Quebec as well.”
“Yer accent ussna Canadian, uss’t?”
“My mum is from Austria.”
“Hou auld ar ye?”
“Awricht? Ye leuk yunger. Masel uss fourteen!”
That last bit he said with all the pride of someone who only earned that distinction very recently.
“Sae, whit ar ye daeing in bonnie auld Alba?” He grimaced and thre a quick look at his dad, before he added: “In Scotland A meant.”
“Aw by yersel?”
“My rents are back on Skye. Your brother Conall picked me up hitchhiking.”
And so on.
While Sim kept up this constant Q&A, I tried to figure out the peeps at the table and their relationships. Mr. MacLeod was a right patriarch, he kept the pose of the unmoved mover at the head of the table – and even though the table was round, it was very obvious that the head was wherever he sat. The others seemed to regard him with a mix of fear and respect. Most of the other were his children, and their general management was apparently left to Mrs. MacLeod. There were two daughters and three sons present, though I gathered that a few more had already left the house. One girl was a friend of Iona, and one boy a mate of seventeen year old Boyd. One of the older men from the hall had left when supper had started, but the other was a friend and neighbour, and I got the impression that he and Mr. MacLeod were working on some project or deal together, but could not pick up any details.
Eventually tea was over. I offered to help with the dishes, but Ceana, the youngest, and the one who had been doing homework together with Sim when I’d arrived, wanted me to help her with her chores, namely feeding the horses and rabbits. Sim, who would have had to go also, asked if I could fill in for him, so he could help Conall with something (a lot of technical farming terms were used, in Scots or even Gaelic, too boot, and it all went right by me.)
Ceana showed me their four horses and the rabbits they kept in boxes behind the house. From her I learned that her family were crofters, people who kept a small farm next to a main job. Her father captained a whale-watching boat from Port Maree and her mother did some administrative work for the Highland Council. But they also raised quail, held sheep, offered hiking tours in summer, and hunting tours in autumn. And they had two hunting cottages to rent to tourists.
It my be girlish, but I really like horses. When I had been younger and begun getting into trouble, this one counsellor got me a place in a stable in the Southwest of Berlin. I was told that it was a job, taking care of the animals. I only learned later that in fact my mum had to pay for it, and that it was therapy. I still bristled at the memory of the deception, but I really enjoyed spending some time with the horses. And when Ceana noticed that I got along with them, and knew what to do, she warmed to me. That was how I found out that Sim had put her up to getting me out of the house.
When I got back, Conall told me that I would stay in his and Sim’s room for the night. He would sleep in the room of another sibling who wasn’t there that night. It seemed a bit complicated but I went along. From the pitying looks I received from Mrs. MacLeod and Iona I understood that Conall had relayed my tale of woe.
Sim showed me to the room and gave me some washed out PJs from one of his older brothers. I had expected him to take up his interrogation again, but he hurried away and left me to my own devices. I was fine with that, and sank into the thick covers. I had had more to eat than in a long wile, and since I had begun the day early and with some serious walking on Skye before getting that ill-fated lift, I was quickly asleep.
Not much later, Sim shook me awake.
“Wheesht” he hissed, signalled me to be quiet, and handed me my jacket.
“Pit on yet claes!”
“Yer claes.” He also tossed my trousers and T onto the bed. “Coorie oop!”
“Why?” I asked, but instinct had me obeying already.
“Akis ye coud fuil ma glaikit brusser wi yer yairn, bit nae ma paw, ye bawheid. An me naisser. Tsat T-shert o’ yers, nae lad what’s feart o’ his paw wat pe caucht deid in it. And oniewey, A ken what Gerlad Blanchard uss. So A ken yer nae what ye said ye ar. Bit ma paw onlie suspects, sae he’s callin’ t’ polis in An Gjerestan reit noo! Tsat’s hou ye want uptail tis bluidy seicont!”
He opened the dormer window and looked out.
“Kin ye sclim o’er tae t’ ruif and…”
But I was already at his side, then up on the window sill, and pulling myself onto the eave line and the dormer roof.
I looked down from there and said: “Thank you, Sim!”
That was the first time, I used his name.
He smiled up at me: “Isheh do veha, Dana.”
That was, what he would call me from then on forth.
There was a noise on the landing outside his room. I froze. He ducked inside but after a second he had his head back outside.
“Fause alairm. Hey, haud on fer a sec. Masel uss richt back.”
He disappeared and I heard him hurry out of the room. I considered scarpering anyway, but while I was still checking out the best – and that meant quietest – way down from the roof, he was already back.
“Here, tak tsir.” He held up a ring with two keys. “Tay’re fer ane o’ oor deer stalkin’ boossies.” And he explained to me how to get there.
“It’s toom richt noo,” and at my confused look: “Empty. Nae occupied. Ye kin scug tare. A’ll come by t’ morn and bring ye sum scran… sum food.”
I wanted to turn away, but he whispered: “A kin onlie come efter schuil us soot. Ye promise ye’ll be tare, Dana?”
He looked zp at me, his face pale in the darkness.
I promised. He nodded and ducked back inside. I crawled across the roof to the windowless side wall and down the downspout, and disappeared in the night.