THE FIRST AND LAST (True Story for Halloween)

Thursday 31 October 2019

On 25 January 2013 I travelled from home in the Scottish Highlands to Horsley, London to pick up my ‘new’ car. My boyfriend Paul came with me so we could share the drive back up north.

I paid for the car and we left Horsley not long after we’d arrived.

Driving further north the worse the weather conditions became. Snow was falling thick and fast. It got so bad you couldn’t distinguish the different lanes on the motorway. It was getting darker too. I was freaking out and bottled out of the driving well before we were anywhere near Newcastle. Paul took over. The satnav was taking us home by the ‘fastest’ route and Paul pulled off the motorway onto the A68. This was a big mistake. Huge.

Drifting snow from open fields had piled onto the road and the blizzard caught in the car’s headlights made it seem like we were in the opening credits of a Star Wars movie. Paul drove well but my hands were sweating and my pits prickled as I felt the back end of the car slide about on the white surface. ‘I mean, thank fuck there’s no other traffic!’ I squeaked at Paul.

‘Yeah, all the smart people have stayed home,’ he said.

‘I’d kinda like to see another car or even light from a house. It’s spooking me out. I don’t like this. At all.’

It really was so very, very dark and very, very quiet – apart from the noise of the car’s engine. I became afraid we were going to get stuck in the snow, miles from anything and anyone. Plus it was late now, approaching 11pm. Paul checked the Satnav. The miles were too far and too treacherous. After what seemed for ever, out of nowhere, a building appeared on our right. It was an Inn, but it was in darkness other than lights shining on its sign The First and Last. We drove on. ‘This is stupid,’ I said.

‘Shall we go back and see if there’s anyone about at that place we just saw?’ Paul suggested. I was all for it, so he, very carefully, stopped the car, turned, and drove back. We knew it would be a long-shot but we were desperate . . .

We looked into the window of the Inn. Definitely all locked up. We walked round the back, through a kind of courtyard, and knocked on the door of the house. The night was so still. A dog barked, but nobody came. We turned and walked away completely dismayed, our breath making cauliflower clouds in the cold air and feet crunching over the snow. Suddenly a marvellous sound – a handle turning. ‘Can I help you?’ A woman asked, standing in a lit doorway.

Paul explained our situation and that very kind woman took pity on us. ‘We don’t have any other guests so we closed the Inn, but I can’t turn you away in this weather. Come with me,’ the woman said. We followed her back across the courtyard, to the locked up Inn. ‘Where have you travelled from?’ She asked. We told her we’d driven up from Horsley in London. ‘That’s funny,’ she said, ‘this place is called Horsley too.’

The woman gave us a Jack n Coke from the wee bar before showing us up to our room.

‘Why’s it called The First and Last?’ I asked.

‘Because it’s the first Inn over the border from Scotland and the last Inn leaving England,’ the woman smiled, and I smiled back.

I can tell you, I’d never felt so happy and relieved as I flumped onto our double bed for the night. Paul immediately switched on the TV (rolling eyeballs and rolling off the edge of the bed I go to the window and push it up and open). I scoop up a giant amount of snow from the ledge and pack it into a beautiful sphere. I weigh up the consequences of the action I know I’m about to take. Fleetingly. Then, as swift as the blow from an executioner’s blade, I spin, I aim, I fire.

Paul is raging.

I’m laughing hysterically. What joy! I climb into bed. Before long I ask P to put the TV off.

It’s pitch black. I close my eyes and wait for sleep. In the darkness I hear the faint sound of music. It’s almost like ceilidh music or something. ‘Do you hear that?’ I ask Paul, my eyes now wide open, waiting impatiently for them to adjust to the blackness.

‘The music?’ he says.

‘Yeah!’

‘Yeah, I hear it.’ A few moments pass.

‘Where’s it coming from?’

‘Dunno. Maybe the woman’s house?’ Paul suggests. He’s probably right. I settle and soon am drifting towards sleep.

Suddenly I’m yanked into wakefulness again. Paul is leaning up on his elbow in the bed. ‘Did you hear that?’ he asks, ‘I thought the woman said there were no other guests and we were alone here?’

‘Yeah,’ I mumble, ‘she did. What is it?’

‘I heard someone out in the hall.’ Paul said.

‘Have you locked our door? You better get up and lock it!’ I tell him. Paul does.

The next morning we go down for breakfast. The woman smiles and asks, ‘How was your night?’ I decide to be truthful.

‘Well,’ I start, ‘Were you playing music?’

‘No,’ replied the woman. ‘I went to bed after you came because I had to get up to do your breakfast. You heard music, what sort of music?’

‘Kind of like dancing music, like ceilidh or something,’ I answered. ‘And did someone else arrive last night because Paul heard someone in the hallway.’

‘No. There was no-one else here,’ the woman confirmed, then added, ‘I’ll go check all the radio clocks in the rooms.’

‘This is super weird, isn’t it?’ I say to Paul. ‘I mean, sound travels, but there’s nowhere else around here for miles. Where the fuck did the music come from? She said she went to bed!’

Several minutes later the woman reappeared. ‘The clocks are all switched off. It’s strange,’ she said, thoughtfully. ‘When I first took this place over my uncle visited. He stayed the night in the room you were in. He swore blind he saw a little girl dancing in the corner of the room. I just thought he’d had a few whiskies too many. But that’s really, really weird that you say you heard dancing music and noises in the corridor.’ Paul and I ate our breakfast and got out of there.

As we drove away from The First and Last Paul said, ‘Well. That place is aptly named. First and last time I’ll ever stay there again! Not because of the service, that woman saved our lives last night, but that place is definitely haunted.’

 

Happy Halloween everyone! Please friend me on facebook here, so I never have to leave my house to socialise again – unless that’s up a mountain. Lol.

Check out another true story. MY  BOOK Just Another Mountainhere.

 

 

31. The Best Things in Life are Free (hill climbed: Sgurr na Stri)

This is the 31st post (and I think my last) of a series which begins here.

Thursday 17 – Saturday 19 October 2019

Life is a journey of peaks and troughs – peaks are easy, it’s the troughs that are hard to navigate. Though I can sink to unfathomable depths of doom, being a mother pulls me back from the edge – my sons are instrumental in bringing out the happiness from within me. I remember their unbridled joy as they chased each other butt-naked round and round the giant sofa in our old living room, their carefree laughter so infectious I’d find myself laughing too; then small bodies launching themselves at me, knocking me over to give me cuddles or lick my cheek, weirdos! These boys give me purpose in life. But hillwalking sees me through too.

Serendipity. The weather is half decent. I’ve been itching to summit camp on Sgurr na Stri for ages, I decide the time is now . . . it’s exactly twenty-two years since Mum died, and two years since I finished my own cancer treatments (recent checks were all clear).

I love the drive to Skye. Offshore is playing through my speaker and I admire the presence of autumn as leaves swirl down from trees that line each side of the road. I suddenly feel an injection of joy – and I’ve not even started walking yet!

At 1.30pm I heave on my pack and leave the parked car. It’s not long before noise and civilisation is behind me on the walk deeper into the glen. All I now hear is my feet connecting with the stony trail and the creak and groan of my pack. Inside it is my down mat, exped sleeping bag and silk liner, a spare top, winter down jacket, food (M&S Harissa chicken and couscous salad, two Avanti bars, a banana, an Aero and a packet of crisps), 2,750mls of water and 500mls of milky hot chocolate, my head-torch and spare batteries, she-pee, wet-wipes, map, compass, gloves, ipod, ear-pops, a pen I’m not going to use, my good Nikon camera and my two-man, four-season tent – aka a veritable shittonne of weight. My arse will feel this in the morning.

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I liked how the rock kind of mirrors the mountain Sgurr Hain. Decided I’d lighten my load here by leaving dead batteries, to collect on way back. (Yeah. Coz those batteries are so heavy. Donut.) 

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After several kilometres I reach the end of the watershed. On my left, Blaven’s Western face looks impregnable. To my right the Cuillin Ridge, Sgurr nan Gillean’s spires and Am Bastier’s tooth looking all Tolkienesque. 

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Ahead. I contemplate the path winding uphill and think, aww maaan . . . and then I laugh, because, actually, I’m in my bloody element.

The route is straightforward and it’s awesome to be on a good path. Although I haven’t caught sight of another human I’m spotting pretty fresh looking footprints in boggier stretches. ‘I really hope I’m not sharing the summit with some fucker,’ I say to myself. In fact, I say this out loud every time I spot a print and make up stories about whose they could be. I stop for an Avanti bar before starting the up. It gives me an extra boost to reach the Druim Hain ridge – the view from here down to Loch Coruisk is finger-licking good and another surge of joy courses through me. What excitement. I yap away to myself.

‘Noooooo doubt about it. Fresh air and exercise help alleviate depression, stress and anxiety. Like, the slog up is hard, but once I get the ridge and reach the peak – man those endorphins, what reward! A natural high!’ I say. It’s absolutely true. All trace of internal conflict is erased. Up on the hills I don’t seek out acceptance or feel the need to be understood. I’m just happy being here.

The path leads up to the col below Sgurr na Stri’s western summit. It’s 5pm and I’m delighted. The mountain is mine alone! I relieve my back of its load and spring about the top looking for a suitable place to pitch.

I’m completely distracted by the beauty of my surroundings. The entire Cuillin ridge circles Loch Coruisk.

There’s a small stone wall beneath the summit – perfect for a bivvy, but not big enough for my tent. However, I throw my tent up close by. Pegs drive into the ground securely which makes me feel happy that I won’t blow over the cliff if the wind picks up. Organised. I take my dinner and sit on the edge of nothing in the stillness. Darkness isn’t far away.

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Looking out over the water I see stark outlines of Eigg, Rum and Mull. I see the flash of a lighthouse (I think?) and I feel totally separated from life below. From the summit the last of the setting sun’s rays cast their warm glow on the tip of Blaven and outlying hills. Loch Coruisk and the Cuillins appear other worldly in deep shades of indigo and blue.

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 The tent is my shelter but this whole place feels like my own personal sanctuary. It’s as close to heaven as you can get.  I take my flask to the summit and raise a hot chocolate toast to my mum. Aero bubbles dissolve in my mouth and warmth rushes into my core. I’m immersed in the beauty of the natural world around me, feeling grateful to be fit enough and healthy enough to appreciate all this wonder.   

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I’m fucking about on my phone in the tent when I hear a plaintive cry somewhere out there in the dark, dark night. A noise that sounds like a wolf-bird or something. It would have creeped me out if I’d been anywhere else – well, anywhere near humans.

Wind outside makes the tent fabric flap loudly. I listen to tunes on my ipod. Lies. I listen to Lost Without You on repeat and think about Mum. The lyrics resonate and memories flash. Wrapped in my sleeping bag I shuffle to the tent door and unzip just enough for my head to stick through. I stare onto the mountain shadow shapes and I look up into the inky night. The hills are my safe haven now, and my memories keep me company.

I feel a drop of rain on my face and then another. I suck my head back inside and lie down. Sleep comes but I wake at midnight. I poke my head out the tent again. Too cloudy for stars but I breathe in the night air and enjoy being here . . . I feel incredibly present on the mountain. This place has captured my heart.

At 6am I see Orion and the Plough, then a shooting star and a satellite. Perfecto.

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Light doesn’t begin to creep in from the east till well after 7.30am. 

I tear myself away at 9.30am, descending the ridge carefully. Aware of my heavy pack. Aware I didn’t sleep much. Aware I’m distracted by the Cuillins and loch. Aware I could stumble more easily. Black rock is wet and I skid anyway. Jaysus! I don’t want to end up like Captain Maryon, I think. I take a small detour to check out the memorial built by his friend. I read that the Captain’s dead body lay here, on this spot, undiscovered for nearly two years. Still, if you’re gonna die, what a place to go. I wonder about the Captain, and then I leave.

Trekking back along the glen I pass a lone male walker, then two. In total I count sixteen day trippers. I feel lucky and privileged to have had the mountain all to myself for as long as I did. Laden cloud smothers Sgurr nan Gillean’s spires. I see the rain coming and feel luckier still – I’m going to get a bit wet, but nothing near the utter soaking the poor sods I passed are in for. Haw haw. ‘But feeling uncomfortable is a good thing,’ I say out loud, ‘because then you appreciate it even more when you are comfortable.’ 

Life is about balance. Without the rough there can be no smooth. When problems begin to weigh mountain walking and the views they offer remind me that the world is a beautiful place. Nature gives me hope. Nature reminds me what is really important in this world. And I think the best things in life truly are free: exercise in the fresh air, family love and laughter, good health, memories, seeing the sun as it rises and sets – and tonight a good night’s sleep!

Other tunes listened to on road home: Sunflower and Circles both Post Malone, Ride it by Regard, Desire by Sub Focus and Dimension.

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Just Another Mountain MY BOOK Find it here. It’s got some super lovely reviews.