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Wednesday, 30 June 2010

End of the road blues: Part Two

We are, I think, all familiar with this famous North American road sign. Having laughed heartily, and, it must be confessed, with a degree of superiority, at whoever planned, designed and then installed the above, it was somewhat humbling to discover that the Scots, famed across the world as engineers, could also concieve of turnpike insanity on an equal level. The first glimmer of this came about five miles up the half-metalled single track clifftop track that leads to Rubha Reidha. As our car crawled along, clinging to the path with every ounce of traction available to it, my companions were marvelling at the 300 ft cliffs that plunged away on our left. Suddenly, a hairpin bend took us slightly inland as the road followed a ravine back inland. Another few twists, then the road plunged downwards and darted across the ravine as if it had lost patience looking for a way across. The bridge that (somewhat reluctantly judging by its construction) had followed the road, seemed to be made of old Zimmer frames and bike parts, and on the other side, I could see that the road twisted sharply left, then leapt almost vertically up the hillside as if relieved to be free of the gorge. I slowed the car so that it crawled down the hill, then lined it up along the bridge and gunned it ferociously. We shot across the shambolic span, then more vicious acceleration as the car strained to make the top of the opposite slope without stalling.
As we crested the hill, Culham and Large laughed:"Did you see that sign?"

I was too frightened to pay attention to road signs, but fortunately, later in the holiday, we had time to record it for posterity. The sign, placed just at the approach to the bridge, was the following:

A couple of miles on, another gorge, another sign. It was as if the roadbuilders were challenging truckers:

And finally, about a mile before the lighthouse, the stakes were raised. The final gorge to cross was, it has to be admitted, slightly less imposing than the previous ones. The bridge was, however, still determinedly flimsy. So, just in case a truck much heavier than the 7.5 tonne ones banned from the two previous bridges had decided that 7.5 tonnes was a lower weight limit, the last bridge was protected by the following sign, a sign which refers to what would be called in North America 18 wheeler tractor trailers.
The road also featured in our first encounter with our fellow lighthouserers. Before launching into that tale, I should illuminate it slightly with the information that having learnt Canadian hinking etiquette from two of Nova Scotia's leading plodders, I have, since my arrival in this country, continued the tradition. On a local Sunday hike, amid the gentle hills of the East Riding Of Yorkshire, for example, I will insist on stopping someone on the path and enquiring if they have water, emergency supplies, a map, compass, sturdy shoes, a whistle and all the accoutrements necessary for wilderness venturing. Of course, the East Riding of Yorkshire is hardly the wilderness and the fact that the person being grilled is probably just walking off a hearty Sunday lunch, and that, in this crowded country the last thing they want is a conversation with a stranger, and also that in this part of England, a fully equipped supermarket, not to mention their house, is usually just over the brow of the nearest hill often makes the question superfluous, but it is a hard habit to shake. Thus spotting a lonely hiker( at nearly ten in the evening) five miles away from shelter trudging up a cliff-top Scotish track, I felt justified in applying the Canadian convention.

I slowed the car gradually as we approached, creeping up behind the hiker until my window was level with her. Once in position, I hit the window control, but unfortunately hit the wrong one, winding the rear window down. Upper most in my mind was the need to ascertain that a fellow hiker was in no danger, so while continuing to drive, and frantically jabbing controls on the armrest to try to get the window down, I started bellowing "ARE YOU ALRIGHT?", "DO YOU NEED WATER???", "IS EVERYTHING OK". While this was going on Cristiana, an Italian of our acquaintance who has never (despite living in Canada and the UK for some time) quite lost what she would willingly describe as a cultural volatility, started shouting at me "What the F***'s are you doing". Additionally, my control jabbing was misguided and the wing mirrors were waggling frantically as the car weaved jerkily along the road. Meanwhile the hiker had on her face an expression similar to that of a startled heron. Taking a slight shake of her head to mean that she was ok, I sped off down the road towards the lighthouse, front and rear windows winding up and down and side mirrors circling merrily, Cristiana still shouting and Nel cackling. It shoud be added, in the interests of historicity, that in truth, we had no water whatsoever in the car. Nevertheless, I felt the gesture was the important thing, and if the hiker had expressed a need for liquid, then one of the bottles of Stella Artois that had been warming in the trunk since Inverness would substituted nicely.

About an hour later, we were settled into the kitchen of the hostel partaking of some liquid refreshment, probably discussing underpants or cats (I had put a cap on the allowed duration of academic conversation per diem) when a mousey head, accompanied by an equally mousey face, poked its head round the door. We all cried a cheery "Hello!", but for a second, I wondered where I had seen that face before. It was only as the face suddenly withdrew from the crack between door and post, in a fashion reminiscent of a doormouse surprised by a snake, that I relaised it was our hiker from the road. The next four days were like living with a ghost. I would emerge from the common shower facility, then, just as I was entering my room down the corridor, would feel a wisp of wind. I would turn just in time to see the shower-room door slam shut and hear the sound of the lock being thrown and what also sounded like large objects being pushed againstit from the other side. I would enter the kitchen for breakfast, short-sighted and dozy as always, half-noticing someone eating at the table, then by the time I had turned round, they would be gone, their meal apprently abandoned mid-mouthful. It was a bit like living on the Marie Celeste.

Others in the lighthouse were equally strange. In the refrectory was a "Wildlife Spotted" whiteboard. Soon after arriving, a smug European pair began to fill this board - "Sea Otter: 7.15am". "Pod of Orcas: 8.20am" "Played water polo with seals until got bored: 18.00 - 22.00". The only word they exchanged with us were the names of the wildlife they had seen, how early in the morning they had seen it, and where, accompanied with a knowing smile. JC rapidly became convinced they were making it up, and proposed retaliatory strikes in the form of made up postings "Kraken: 13.00", "Went to dinner with mermaids: awful hangover" "Unicorn and foal borrowed £2.50. Will return same time tomorrow".

Then there was also the fact that everyone else went to bed at about 10pm despite two very, very comfortable sitting rooms, ideal for groups to gather and chew the fat. This early a-bed is forgivable if they were engaged in vigourous outdoor pursuits requiring an early start, but in truth we saw no sign of that. And the idea occured that they all wanted solitude, but this also seems illogical to me. While I didnt particularly want to have a full blown party, it seems very odd that people would voluntarily go to a hostel where all the facilities are shared and to not want to share even a "hello", but the fact remains that getting a conversation out of most of the other guests was like prising a mollusc off a rock. In truth, what most of the other guests seemed to do was to walk out of the hostel's door in the morning, amble up the headland, remove enormous binoculars from their bags and look at things all day. Inevitably, there was conflict, between our diverse lifestyles and that of the other guests.......

On our third evening I was telling Cristiana, during a particularly aggressive moment, that what I was offering, right there and then, in front of Nel and Jody, was a one-time offer. I continued:

"This is the best offer you've ever had. Turn your back on this, baby, and you'll regret it for ever. And I wont forget. So what's it to be? Right here, right now, on this table - everything you've ever wanted? Or nothing! Zip! Nada. I got it, you want it, lets do it! "

Cristiana's face grew thunderous.

"F**k you, asshole. Keep it. I donna wanna! I got plenty". She made the Italian hand signal at me that means "you are dismissed".

Culham and Large exchanged glances. Large though for a second and glanced briefly at me;

"I've never seen you play Monopoly so recklessly before" she said, before continuing "You're going to go bankrupt, but I'll give you something for the railway stations".

Just at that moment, a head peeked round the door. It was a guy RHB had been talking to earlier, a nightclub owner from London, here with his huband. We assumed that out of all the guests we'd met, being nightclub owners, they'd be up for a laugh.

"Excuse me, it's nearly eleven pm. I'm sleeping right above you. Could you keep the noise down?".

Naturally we did. In fact, we packed up and the next day drove to Inverness, where JC caught a flight to Italy, then Durham where CCP lives, then finally Hull where the cats were waiting and my phone was screaming text messages at me demanding that I travel to London the next day to work.

1 comment:

Toly's human said...

Excellent post, Martin, but have two corrections. Nell will tell you that I'm an anal-retentive obsessive compulsive editor who can't help but make changes to any work done by any human being that I know.

1) As embarrassing as it was, your attempted rescue mission of the woman who was simply walking along the road was not our only moment of confusion. You will recall our drive to Scotland when I needed a loo. I had spent the past half hour pondering how much pressure a human bladder could take before exploding when finally we found a place to stop in para "caravan park" (to North Americans: this is not a reserve for processions of gypsies, but simply Britspeak for an RV park). As I wandered around, legs half-crossed, futilely looking for a place to pee, a nice elderly couple wandered up the road. "Excuse me," I said, as politely as possible, "might you possibly know whether there may perhaps be a *washroom* anywhere near here?" They kindly gave directions, which we carefully followed... to discover they had sent me to the *laundry room*. So much for politeness. Next time I'm just saying, "Where can I take a piss?"

2) I was not so creative as to list mermaids and unicorns on the sightings board. My sole urge was to write: "13:00 sheep. 13:02 more sheep. 13:05 even more sheep 13:08 I'm never seen so bloody many sheep. 13:13 Anyone else craving lamb korma? ...."