Laura concentrated hard on the road in front of her. The light was beginning to fade as she drove along the single-track thoroughfare bending through the West Highlands of Scotland.
‘Can’t be far now,’ she said out loud.
She expertly guided the black Range Rover through the twists and turns of the mountain highway. She enjoyed the challenge of the unfamiliar journey. Laura drove just at the right speed for the conditions, changing up and down the gears with precision. There had been nobody coming in the opposite direction for miles now. The road took her attention away from the scenery; she passed green fields full of scraggy sheep, grassy hills, conifer plantations, bare, dark mountains in the distance threaded in mist, occasional glimpses of grey sea. The satnav had seemed to lose her position at the last settlement so now she was relying on instinct to get to her destination. She travelled by a grand house set back a short distance from the road, almost hidden behind thick trees, and then a village sign came into view: Cragganford. This was it. Laura’s pulse began to throb faster with excitement. She whizzed by a small development of modern houses on the left hand side. They were white with newness but built in the traditional Highland style with two windows poking out of the roof. Then there was a little shop and café with a bright green sign on the right bearing the legend: The Quiach. Laura knew from her research into the traditions of the area that this meant ‘drinking cup’ in Gaelic.
‘How quaint!’ she said to herself.
Laura had been talking to herself throughout the trip to stave off the loneliness of her long journey. She drove on a few hundred yards and found what she was looking for on the left. She had arrived at last at the Cragganford Hotel. It was a large, straggling, stone-built Victorian building set straight on to the road.
Laura guided the 4 by 4 into the empty car park at the back and got out. She opened the boot and retrieved her pull along suitcase and dragged it along the tarmac and then back round to the front. She appraised the hotel façade critically. It didn’t look like the photos. In the images she had viewed online it had been high summer and the building had been covered in the rich red of Virginia Creeper. Now it was late October and there were no leaves on the branches stretching over the stonework. Laura suddenly became aware of the chill in the air and she hurried inside the imposing front door.
There was a little lobby where several people had left walking boots to dry off and then another door led to the bar. Laura strode purposefully through. There were no customers whatsoever and no sign of anyone working there. The room had an air of gloom. The bar stools in front of her looked like they were upholstered with actual offcuts of patterned carpet. Laura perched on one of these precariously and waited. Nobody came. Laura noticed a bell on the bar and she dinged it twice. A gaunt man appeared from the back and shuffled unsteadily towards her. He was middle aged with light brown wispy hair starting to bald on the top. Laura had the distinct impression he was slightly drunk from his wandering gait.
‘Hello. I’m Laura, the new owner. Pleased to meet you,’ she said and put out her hand towards him.
He eyed her hand with its perfectly manicured fingernails as if he wasn’t quite sure what it was for some moments and then shook it surprisingly firmly. Then he lowered his hand and stood surveying the room with an air of someone who was surprised to find himself there.
‘And you are?’ Laura enquired feeling shocked at his odd behaviour.
‘I’m Angus. Barman. At your service madam,’ he said in a singsong soft accent that Laura had never heard the like of before.
He continued just to stare, not smiling, not scowling and he didn’t offer her anything more. Laura could feel frustration rising within her but she pushed it down, determined to remain professional.
‘Look, I’ve been driving for a long time. Would it be possible to have some coffee?’
Without a word he disappeared into the back. Laura took the opportunity to appraise the bar. The gantry was filled with all kinds of whisky, too many to count. There were a couple of hand pumps for beers she hadn’t heard of and then an assortment of wine bottles on the back shelf. Multitudes of glass and metal beer tankards were hanging over the bar. The room was divided into two with a dining area at one end furthest away from the bar with little wooden tables and chairs and then the odd stools in a row on this side. The walls were decorated with old prints of grouse moorland scenes and portraits of spaniels. The paint was starting to peel away in the corners and cobwebs were lurking in the hard to reach places. There was a huge stone fireplace at one end but no fire was lit in it even though there was a pile of split logs at the side in a woven willow basket. Laura hadn’t realised that pubs like this still existed. Her heart began to sink but she told herself sternly that she wasn’t in London now. This was a lesson in how not to buy property. Laura had purchased the hotel on a whim without seeing it. This was risky but it had looked so perfect in the estate agent details and it had certainly been cheap. She hadn’t really been thinking straight at the time of the sale. Her thoughts had only been of escape. Things were going to be different up here from what she was accustomed to. She would just have to get used to it. Anyway, there was plenty of room for improvement.
She started making plans in her head for all the changes she could make. Laura was thinking rustic but modern. She imagined wooden benches at long oak tables with the kitchen on view from the dining area. The bar could be remodelled and offer a range of reasonably priced wines from all over the world and carefully chosen craft beers. She would keep the wide selection of whiskies, as this was Scotland after all. The fireplace looked historic so that could stay as well but with a welcoming fire roaring at all times of the winter months. The walls could be repainted with a simple classic off-white paint with oil paintings of seascapes to break up the expanse. Laura was roused from her thoughts by a young woman heading towards her from the kitchen area. The girl plonked the coffee rather too heavily on the bar in front of Laura and smiled widely.
‘Hi. I’m Amy. I’m kind of the chef and barmaid. Really I do a bit of everything,’ she said in an Australian accent.
Amy had long blonde hair she wore loose and a smile that radiated sunshine out of her young, pretty face.
‘Laura,’ said Laura and put out her hand towards Amy.
Amy looked surprised at the offer of a handshake as if people didn’t normally do this to her but she took Laura’s hand and shook it firmly, rather too firmly as if she were in a cartoon.
‘I’m the new owner. I’m glad you’re here. I’m sure you’ll be a great help to me in finding my feet. Angus seems a little bemused,’ said Laura.
‘Er, yeah, you could say that. He’s all right really. You’ll get used to us all I’m sure,’ said Amy. Then, she laughed nervously.
Laura drank her coffee with relief. It was just what she needed to perk herself up.
‘Is it possible to have any food?’ she asked Amy.
‘Sure thing. I’ll get you a menu,’ Amy said and disappeared again.
While waiting for her return Laura became aware of footsteps behind her. She turned around to see a tall, bulky man heading towards the bar. He was dressed head to foot in navy waterproofs and had a leather cowboy hat on his head that was dripping raindrops onto the floor. He was wearing black wellington boots that were caked in mud. He removed his hat as he approached to reveal blonde curly hair that was starting to thin and grey. His face was tanned brown and his eyes were watery blue. He had a wide nose that looked like it may have been broken at some time in the past. He was craggy, not quite good looking, and his face showed he was running to more fat than was good for him. He ignored Laura completely and banged his hand down heavily on the bar several times.
‘What do you need to do to get a drink round here? Amy!’ he shouted.
Amy returned looking unconcerned and gave Laura the menu. Then she poured the man a large whisky and a half beer and placed them on the bar in front of him.
‘Calm down Alban,’ she said, ‘you mad dog you.’
He grunted and took a swig of the whisky. He turned slightly and looked sideways at Laura with an expression of complete disgust and then headed off to the furthest part of the room where he sat down with his drinks and a newspaper he had fished from somewhere inside his coat. It was The Guardian, which seemed out of place with the rural ambience.
Laura was unsure if she should introduce herself to him or not. She decided against it and perused the menu. It was as basic as she had feared. You could have fish and chips, pie and chips, gammon and chips, steak and chips or a sandwich and chips. Laura sighed.
‘I’ll have steak and chips please, Amy. Medium rare,’ she said.
‘Coming right up,’ Amy said flashing her smile and then waggling off into the back.
Laura sipped her coffee and deliberately did not look at Alban in the corner. She bristled with irritation that he was so rude. People said Londoners were rude but this place was something else.
Thank goodness for Amy, the only human being in the place, she thought.
Laura placed changing the menu on her mental to do list. She had heard the west coast of Scotland had some amazing seafood: langoustines, lobster, crab and mussels. That should all be on offer here.
Angus appeared once again and stood dolefully in front of her, swaying back and forwards on his toes and heels. Laura ordered a glass of red wine from him. He didn’t give her a choice but brought back a large glass of what she guessed was Rioja. Actually, it wasn’t half bad and she felt relieved that at least this was something they had got right. She enjoyed the warm feeling it gave her as it slipped down her throat and started to relax a little.
The food arrived and looked better than Laura had expected. She picked up her plate and took it to one of the tables. Unfortunately, this was nearer to the glowering Alban but she didn’t want to eat at the bar. The tables had cutlery wrapped in red serviettes, red plastic place mats and little wooden crates with condiments in. The steak was cooked just how Laura liked it and the chips were thick and crispy. This was simple but good. Amy could cook at least. Laura felt sure she could persuade her into more adventurous dishes. While she was eating another customer appeared. He was another lone man but with a more amenable expression than Alban. In spite of his youth he was dressed in traditional tweedy country clothes and he had a collie dog with him. He nodded briefly towards Laura and Alban and then stood at the bar and nursing a pint. A little while later a group of tourists walked in and sat down to eat. They spoke to each other in German and smiled kindly at Laura. They drank beer and joked with each other, laughing loudly. Laura surmised they were the owners of the walking boots in the lobby. They were two couples approaching retirement. Laura envied them their easy friendship. After she had finished her meal she walked up to the bar and asked Amy to show her to her living quarters.
‘One minute,’ said Amy and disappeared into the back. She returned with a large bunch of keys and walked back out to the lobby, beckoning Laura to follow. They went out of another door and up some narrow stairs covered in threadbare tartan carpet. They walked down a long corridor lined with unremarkable country prints and then up a short flight of stairs. Amy struggled with the key in the lock of a cream coloured door and then managed to open it.
‘Here we go,’ she said, ‘This is yours. I’m just downstairs, the first door. Nobody else lives in. We only have four guests at the moment and they are downstairs as well, just along from me. You have this floor all to yourself.’
‘Thanks Amy. For everything,’ Laura said and squeezed Amy’s shoulder in friendship.
‘No worries. I’ll leave you to it. We shut the bar at eleven so I’ll lock up then. Just get some rest,’ she said and vanished.
Laura wandered around her new living space. She was right up in the eaves of the hotel in the attic rooms. They had sloping roofs and little windows looking out onto the road at the front. Opposite there was a field of sheep. Laura had never had a view of sheep before. It was strangely uplifting. There was a small sitting room and then a bedroom with an en-suite shower room and a tiny kitchen. The furnishings were ancient and couldn’t have been expensive even when they were new. Laura was determined to remain optimistic. She had some money over from the sale of her terrace in Dulwich which, in spite of its modest proportions, had shot up in value in recent years due to its location. She could buy a few things to brighten up her apartment. Everything would be fine. She managed to make herself a cup of tea in the kitchen. Everything had been just left as if somebody had walked out one day and not given a backward glance. Laura sat on the lumpy sofa and hugged her knees. In spite of the disappointment of the dilapidated surroundings she was still excited. There was potential here and Amy looked capable and might even be a potential friend and ally. There was an age difference between them but they could probably get on well together. She noticed it was pitch dark outside and drew the thin curtains together. It was eerily silent. She needed to distract herself from thoughts of the past so she unpacked and hung her few clothes in the post war utility wardrobe. More of her things were arriving by van probably tomorrow but she had left most of her possessions in London as this place had come fully furnished. Then she showered and rubbed herself vigorously. Laura found her laptop in the suitcase and fired it into life. There was no Wi-Fi signal. Damn. Another thing to sort out. She still needed to keep her mind of things so she flipped on the TV. The news came on. It was the very news programme she had worked on herself. She had been a highflying television journalist, top of her profession until her disgrace. There they all were, carrying on without her. She imagined the activity behind the scenes, the after work drinks, the friendships, the laughs. No, she refused to think about that time. She refused to think about Jacob. She switched over to a chat show. It was cosy and entertaining. She paused the show to ring Harry on her mobile. He answered quickly for once.
‘Hi mum, how’s it all going up there?’
‘Great. I’ve not been here long. The hotel’s a bit old-fashioned but there’s so much potential,’ said Laura.
‘Brilliant. I’m so pleased for you mum,’ said Harry.
‘You must come and visit soon. Promise you will,’ said Laura.
‘Of course. I’ll bring all my mates. We can surf. Do they do surfing in Scotland?’
‘I assume there’s surfing. There’s plenty of sea anyway. I think this hotel’s only ten minutes walk to a beach.’
‘Really. Wow. We’ll definitely come then. Can’t wait,’ said Harry.
‘Oh, I’m missing you such a lot. Remember to come soon,’ said Laura.
Anyway, I’ve got to go. There’s a party,’ said Jacob.
‘Oh that sounds fun. I’m glad you’re settled in so well. Speak soon. Love you,’ said Laura, trying to keep her disappointment at the cut short conversation out of her voice.
‘Love you mum,’ said Harry.
At least she still had Harry to love. Their relationship was still strong. It had become stronger during the supposed difficult teenage years rather than weaker. He was a good kid. Laura hoped they would be able to keep their bond now she was so far away up here.
She went back to watching TV. As time went on Laura felt her lids getting heavy. It was time for bed. She crawled under the duvet in the little bedroom. The bed was a small double and surprisingly soft. Grateful for this small mercy she nestled down for the night. She could hear owls hooting and then a strange sound in the distance almost like crying. It made her slightly nervous but she told herself firmly it was probably just animals or the wind. There was no sound of cars and Laura realised how much she had become used to the continual hum of traffic back in London.
Laura had arrived in Scotland.
Things could only get better.