I’ve been away on holiday with E. I hired a car and took us right up into the Highlands, to the west coast by Skye. We have been reading Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water to one another and the idea was to visit the site of Camusfeàrna, the remote cottage in which Maxwell lived with his otters in the 1950s and 60s. Our comic timing was impeccable: there were gale-force winds and almost constant rain throughout the three days of our stay. We managed camping on the first night only, shivering in our damp tent as a steady rain pelted its sides and created deep swampy puddles in the grass where we’d pitched. The forecast promised no reprieve, so we soon removed ourselves to a nearby youth hostel.
And from there we had a brilliant time, full of exploration and adventure, despite the challenging weather. We met serpents in Skye and deer in Glenelg and a troupe of Snow Scouts in Ratagan; we witnessed multiple rainbows at dusk over a mountain-fringed loch; we ditched the car and trekked along unmarked trails to reach beautiful, secluded Sandaig Bay (Camusfeàrna); we climbed over fallen pine trees blocking the path and crossed streams and peed in the woods. For three days we played with a different kind of life, away from our normal routines and circumstances.
It was exhilarating, yes, but I wouldn’t say it was relaxing. There were many miles of intense, careful driving involved, through winding, treacherous single-track mountain roads; there was the task of organizing our excursions and meals each day, and coordinating them with the hostel’s daily six-hour lock-out; and there was the social negotiation demanded by dormitory living and meal preparation in a crowded communal kitchen. People snored, trod on one another with unwieldy backpacks, and the oven and cutting boards and tea towels were unreasonably hoarded by the bossy matriarch of a visiting hillwalking group – all part of hostelling fun. On the final evening of our visit, as we took a walk alongside the loch by the hostel, E observed that I looked tired, to which I agreed. “But you’re on holiday!” she protested, as though I were deliberately shirking my responsibility to become rested. I can’t help how I felt: as the sole adult in charge of delivering a fun-filled family holiday, I was fatigued with the effort to keep it all humming along. I am reminded of the Idler’s advice to parents.
The next day I drove us back home in a six-hour stretch at the steering wheel, arriving in Edinburgh at the peak of rush hour’s tense scramble of traffic. At home we unloaded the bags and coats and muddy shoes and parcels of uneaten food and damp camping gear from the boot of the car, up the stairs to our flat, and dumped it all in a pile in the hall for sorting out later. Then after dinner, E took herself to enjoy a long hot soak in the bath, while I sipped a well-deserved gin and tonic, and reconnected to the online world, plugging back into the context from which I’d taken a break.
And there I learned of some terrible, sobering news. What is the worst thing you can imagine happening to you? Perhaps you needn’t even think on it: something will immediately come to your mind, a knee-jerk gut reaction, the thing you fear most. The worst possible thing ever has happened to someone I know, a friend from work. His husband J has died suddenly, unexpectedly, as though gripped on the shoulders by two unseen hands and ripped from the picture, leaving an empty, bewildered space with dust spinning and gently settling down where a man used to be.
My friend talked about J frequently and with abundant affection. Sitting in the desk across from me at work he would often remark on their conversations, or what they’d done at the weekend. They recently celebrated their four-year wedding anniversary, and when he referred to the occasion his eyes were brimming with pride and happiness. Only a few weeks ago, he described J as the love of his life. The love of one’s life! How many people can say that they are happily married to the love of their life? Their relationship meant something to me, of which my friend will not even have been aware: it breached my divorced-lone-parent cynicism. I enjoyed it vicariously: the sound contentment and the buzzing romance and the great good fortune they had found with one another.
The worst possible thing ever has happened to my friend, and I feel gutted and bereft for his sake, and stunned with the ridiculous awful hurt of it. The holiday is over.