The Isle of Skye
It took three trains, a public ferry and a redheaded fisherman’s taxi to get to the Isle of Skye. I was sitting in the drawing room of an aristocratic Scottish family’s lodge with a crackling little fire, a stuffed pheasant and a photograph of some uncle or other shaking hands with the Pope. I almost knocked a glass of chardonnay over onto a personal letter from Winston Churchill, inconspicuously framed on an end table next to the menu for afternoon tea.
Other guests, a posh husband and wife and their uptight ten-year-old daughter, were playing a board game. The parents ordered a bottle of wine and the awkward waiter, the kind of waiter who has no business working in a field that requires interacting with other people, said to the daughter, “I’m afraid, young lady, that you can’t have any wine.”
The girl gave him a horrible look, like she was wondering why a member of the serving class had dared to interact with her, like she would soon have a word with her governess.
Another guest, an eighty year-old woman in Harry Winston diamonds and coral lipstick drawn by a shaky hand, said to the mother, “I am most impressed by your daughter. She is the most well-behaved young woman.”
In royal accents they asked each other competitive little questions about universities, Devon, Cheltenham, polo, summers in France and people named Phillip.
“I was able to come over by train so I haven’t had to motor,” said the older woman, like the alternative was driving a Model T.
The family left and I climbed over an ottoman to move to their vacated seats closer to the fire. She watched me and said, “You see darling, that’s the wonderful thing about wearing trousers.”
I was one of those odd American girls, climbing over furniture and wearing pants, like some kind of freewheeling disciple of Amelia Earhart.
In the dining room the walls were dark green and decorated with paintings of important ancestors dressed in plaids and gowns. At dinner a man at the next table over wore a tweed waistcoat buttoned to the neck. I felt a certain nationalistic camaraderie with a big American family at another table, hooting and hollering in bad haircuts and fleece sweatshirts.
I always do the driving when Tom and I go to the UK. It is vaguely better for our marriage for me to drive than to be the passenger. You know how these things can be.
I rented a car that looked like it had scratched a passenger-side itch on a brick wall. “It’s always the Americans,” said the grandfatherly salesman.
I drove on the left side of the road all day and only drifted onto the shoulder five times. That sounds like a lot but isn’t, considering Skye had harrowing single-track roads that created an automotive atmosphere very much like driving blindfolded on a Formula One circuit against professional racecar drivers in rented economy-size Vauxhalls. Occasionally, and in great terror, I came around a bend to find a longhorn cow or fat little sheep standing directly in the middle of the road, blithely chewing on grass. Everyone survived.
When we arrived back at the hotel at dusk there was a man in a green hunting jacket teaching three Irish setter puppies how to heel. We drank and ate and read and slept until I woke up at 3:00am to the sound of a murderous wind. The curtains were open and outside the middle of the night appeared like the blue beginning of dawn, giving ominous shades and shapes to nothing.
I was used to the city, where the nighttime threats are assessable. The drunken fights in foreign languages were never my problem. The sirens were never coming for me. Groups of men stood this way or that, menacing or not. There were always other people in the city, playing out understandable little dramas.
I didn’t know how to get a read on the empty threats of open spaces. On the lonely loch, the wind and shapes said little about what they were, or what they wanted from me.
I woke up so late the next morning that when I went in for breakfast the waitresses were ironing the tablecloths for lunch.
That afternoon on the ferry an American woman in her sixties held up and admired a souvenir, a dishtowel printed with drawings of Scottish waterfowl. Another American woman said competitively, and out of nowhere, that the dishtowel was so beautiful that it should be hung on a wall and not used for dishes.
In rustic braggadocio, the woman with the dishtowel pointed her nose upwards and said that she didn’t have a dishwasher. The other said, defensively, that she didn’t have a clothes dryer.
“Our generation is the only generation,” said the woman without the dishwasher, once she decided they were on the same side.
This useless personal espionage was all the same, sipping sherry in the drawing room, creeping around in the nighttime wilderness of a hotel room, or chugging along on the public ferry. We were all trying to understand who we were in the simplest terms, by uncovering the disadvantages of everyone else.
Alongside the train tracks at Fort William there was a cluster of three-story apartment buildings with dirty white walls, rusty satellite dishes, empty dog food bowls on pockmarked concrete, and postcards slipped into window frames, photo-side out, for train passengers to see.
The residents of tiny apartments in faraway places always have something to say about themselves, even to the passersby who never notice.