If, having visited this town shivering with cold, you too have known a winter like this one, the bitter wind raking the streets that, blanketed with snow, preserve an inviolate stillness, save for the muffled steps of this man who, as you stand transfixed at a distance, makes his way towards the bridge that spans the frozen river, you may also have felt compelled to pursue this figure before us.
I imagine that you will not have seen me as, hidden from view in a doorway, I await, as I do unfailingly every day at four in the afternoon, the arrival of this apparition.
Undetected by any other, I note that you are torn, as I was the very first time that I saw him as, your hands seeking refuge in the warmth of your pockets, you debate with yourself whether to succumb to the winter’s harsh elements, hurrying back to your hotel with its coal fire, hot and hearty food, and the congenial glow transmitted by the other guests or, as I did, to follow this wayfarer who has the power to enthrall the least curious of mortals.
I remember the moment, in that year’s early spring, that I first beheld him. Walking along the street that skirted the river, on my way to see my mother whom I loved more than I was ever to love any other woman, I paused for a while by a bench to ponder the weary succession of my wrecked love affairs.
Beguiled by the unseasonably warm breeze, and not to mention the becalming scene before me with the interlacing branches of trees bedecked with their early hint of blossom and the transparent water gliding over smooth pebbles, it did not take me long to see that I had deluded myself by thinking that the perceptions that played on my senses would bestow upon me, if not oblivion, at least a kind of peace.
For all the gentle rustling of the wind in the nearby foliage, I could not get out of my mind the previous night’s din, with Heather banging down the crockery on the kitchen table and railing against my inability to express to her the slightest flickering of affection, as she threatened once again to leave me.
I sat there immobile in the living-room, telling myself that our break-up had long been a bygone conclusion and with my making no last-ditch effort to prevent her from leaving, as she rushed into the bedroom to fling some clothes into a suitcase.
With the slamming of the door putting paid to her high-pitched sallies of recrimination that ranged from my inept love-making to my tendency to domestic squalor in leaving a used tea cup overnight in the sink, Heather’s final exit from my life filled me not so much with the pangs of regret as with the keenest feeling of relief.
Pouring myself a large scotch, I knew that I could now meet the gathering dusk head-on, and not with trepidation, firm in the knowledge that I would no longer have to feign a scintilla of desire for the intruder in all but name who night after night had lain beside me.
Why, I asked myself, did not one of my old flames, each in turn snuffed out by my indifference, fail to inspire in me the same anticipation that possessed me when, after ringing my mother’s bell, I hung on the sound of her footsteps as she made her way towards the door? Or why, as I lay atop some female’s unprotesting flesh, did I not feel subject to the bond of oneness that annulled my selfhood when, lulled by the radio’s indistinguishable voices, I drifted off to sleep alongside my mother?
Opening my eyes, I was astounded to see not the familiar fireplace that faced the sofa, but a man of medium height adorned with a crown of tousled blonde hair, standing beside me. Noting his air of self-absorption, I had no wish to stir him from his musings, and uttered not a word as he moved away, heading towards the bridge. I had never known intimacy with any other man, and were I to be caught up in any such scenario, I would never have been able to forgive myself but, gazing at this figure’s strong shoulders and bulging calves, I could not fail to be rapt by such an imposing presence.
At home that night, I could not sleep from fear of never again being able to feast my eyes upon him, and the following day I made my way in haste to the same spot, and at the very same hour as I had first observed him. You will imagine my relief to have found him there, as I did every day from then on, following him further and further up Shepherd’s Hill, emboldened as I was that he never once turned round.
But an eternity stands between that spring and this winter that we now inhabit, with four in the afternoon a black pall as I wait in this doorway, not so much in some purposeless bid for shelter as not to be seen, however unlikely in this cover of darkness.
In the yellow light cast by the street lamp, I see that you, as spellbound as I am by this enigma, pursue him across the bridge and up the hill, and I follow, far enough away not to be noticed and yet close enough not to lose sight of you.
And now, having reached the outermost edge of the town, where a few gloomy villas seem uninhabited, you start to ascend The Mount, slackening your pace because of the steep incline. I look down, towards the church where as a boy I had learnt that, for all the infernal ravings, there was at least some prospect of salvation but, its lofty spire erased, there was nothing to be witnessed. I longed for the safety of my mother’s home, my only real home, letting myself in with the key that I had been given, as she would be fast asleep.
I remembered that, even in my earliest years, I had been warned about going to The Mount, which led to the path that, climbing higher and higher, emerged at The Sheer Drop, that narrow ledge of land that fell away abruptly into nothingness.
Besieged once again by the demons of an infant’s dreams, I saw that I did not have your courage, and made my way as quickly as I could towards the town.
Resolving never again to follow this stranger, I did not feel at peace until I had locked my mother’s door from within.
But my recourse to caution did not stop me from tossing and turning, aching to discover more about this sullen wanderer. Not that it was to be long before all of us knew the truth about Archie Lennox and his daily expeditions to The Mount, and towards The Sheer Drop.
Whether to try to forget that they had once again been consigned to hell, or desperate to defrost their bodies in such a well-heated sanctuary, that Sunday the entire congregation, save one or two outliers, took its leave of the church that had for more than four hundred years held sway over the town square, and made its frantic way towards the public house that, in a gesture between insolence and contempt, stood directly opposite.
And once inside, and after the pious masks had slipped from thawed faces, the talk, by now more strident, turned to the debt unpaid, the fraud perpetrated, the flesh more than ready to yield to sin.
The liquor-fuelled confessions, punctuated by gasps of disbelief, were interrupted only by the frigid gust of wind that, driving the patrons deeper into the innermost recesses of the room, accompanied the opening of the door.
For a moment all eyes were upon the man who, on entering, shuffled over to the bar to order the stiffest of drinks but, given that it was nothing out of the ordinary to see him there, the onlookers, eager to outdo each other in boastful tales of total depravity, wasted no time in returning to their raucous exchanges.
But not James Menzies who, having blown a whole month’s wages at the races by placing all his money on an also-ran, felt far too subdued to rise to the occasion of high-spirited banter.
Revisiting the previous day’s loss, in all its painful detail, he was taken aback to find that this fellow-tippler, habitually so aloof, had not only entered the alcove to sit beside him but, preparing to unleash a torrent of words, had taken him by the arm.
“I’m sorry if I’m disturbing you. I understand if you want to be left alone with your thoughts and so, if you must, tell me to go away. I singled you out because I sensed that you would understand. You see, I’ve kept my story to myself for so long, and feel the need, that can no longer be contained, to share it with someone.”
James was later to tell his friends that, perfectly aware that he had only until the end of the day to arrange for a loan to tide him over and, in any case, deaf to the entreaty of a man who was not even an acquaintance, he had, as a prelude to taking his leave, already gathered up his scarf that lay on the table before him.
But, casting what was meant to be a last glance at this importunate creature who had asked more of him than he was ready to give, he could not help but be affected by the haunted expression that encountered his and, moved to pity, he exclaimed,“Go ahead and tell me what is preying on you.”
“I’m sorry if, drinking alone in the corner, Ì’ve seemed stand-offish till now. From time to time, I’ve seen you looking my way, with your candid eyes and that half-smile lingering on your lips, and if I’ve averted my gaze, it’s been more from shyness than any kind of hostility. Of course, my breakdown that came on just seven months after moving to London, and from which I have yet to make a full recovery, has done nothing to help. No doubt it was a step too far as I was brought up in the Scottish borders, in a village so small it makes this town seem a metropolis.
In any case, thrilled to have established my footing in all that immensity, thanks to my diligent work as an electrician, those were, at first, heady days. Indeed, unlike so many others, with no choice but to live in one room, sharing the kitchen and bathroom with innumerable others, I had soon saved enough money to rent my own small flat in the suburbs and, guilty about being so far away from my parents, and keen to salve my conscience, I even had more than sufficient to send them weekly transfers.
But soon, weary of sitting alone, watching endless videos as I drank one can of beer after another, I started making nightly visits to a bar just five minutes from home.
Of course, there had been times before then when I had knocked it back, but nothing like the regular heavy drinking that started after I went south.
I guess it was my awkwardness around women that made me hit the bottle so regularly that, more often than not, I would end up legless. And there were many dismal mornings when, waking up in the half-light, I could not remember the crude mechanics of the previous night’s desire because love-making I am quite sure it was not and, muttering a hasty goodbye to my latest one-night stand, I was once again mortified to find that I had forgotten the woman’s name. But when I held out for more, hoping to meet, say, a secretary or a beautician I would have been proud to have introduced to my parents, and not one of the many part-time waitresses far too eager to get me into their clutches, I was destined to disappointment.
Although I was handsome, or so I had been told, I could not erase my rustic manners or soften my strongest of accents, and the women I aspired to, seeking a kind of slickness that I did not possess, had set their sights on the likes of a dentist or solicitor.
I don’t know what the trigger was but then came my collapse.
I lost all interest in meeting people or money-making, and then it got worse and I could hardly bring myself to shave or even wash. It was all the effort I could make to get out of bed, and that city, which had once gleamed with boundless possibilities, now seemed a trap from which I had to free myself.
Unwilling to place any further strain on my parents, I remembered a school-friend who owned a cottage, ramshackle and uninhabited, just two miles from this town, and got in touch. He told me that the place had running water and a mattress, and offered me a small loan until I got the medical certificate that would secure me an allowance.
It was not so much a question of my taking my chances, as I had no other option, or that is how I saw it, and one Friday I arrived.
I dispensed with the local bus service and, walking into town every day and all the way back, I felt with every step that I took that I was returning to health. It was the spring and, marveling at the flowers that assailed me at every turn, I breathed in the air suffused with hopefulness. Over time, I came to have my favorite walk, which I undertook religiously, heading down the bridle path until, coming upon the river, I followed its course, observing the town’s rooftops in the ever-shrinking distance.
On reaching the main square, I made my way towards the bridge and, looking down at the river’s ebb and flow, I told myself that life was like wáter and that, all of a sudden, it could acquire any shape. And, consoled by my thought, I would cross the bridge to embark on my daily ritual, climbing the slope that wended upwards until, out of breath, I would find myself opposite the tangled trees of the shadowy wood.
And ascending the path, afflicted by the same thoughts that I will never confess to anyone, and that as a boy had tormented my mind as I negotiated the dark and narrow close of the tenement building in which we lived, I told myself that it would be craven to turn back and, after all, had I not always emerged into the radiant light, averting the precipice that lay at my feet?
And then came the day when, for the first time, I saw her threading her way between the cliff’s edge and a tree stump and, fearful that she might lose her balance, or trip on a patch of rough ground, I hollered to her. With an acrobat’s poise, she approached me.
‘Please don’t worry about me. I’m hardly likely to fall as I’ve taken the same path since I was a young woman, and know it by heart every inch of the way. Of course, a year ago my vision began to fail and I started to see only diffuse shapes, but I believe I could come here even in the dead of the night, and still keep to my well-trodden course. I will take you by the arm, even though my family and friends tell me that I am far too trusting, but you look out on a limb somehow and I hate to be uncomradely. Have you ever been to The Ruined Tower? It has some mesmerizing views. Hold on tight, and we’ll get there together.’
She told me that her name was Moira Fraser, and that she came from the town, and went on to mention that the tone of my voice had inspired well-being in her. She confided that, though faced with the onset of blindness, and prone to a dejection that so often came close to engulfing her entire being, she could still draw on the will-power to make the daily trip to The Sheer Drop and that, while she would not be able to enjoy the view from The Ruined Tower, as she had once done, she would derive pleasure from my excitement.
From then on, and for several months, we would meet at the same spot at five in the early evening and if, as we walked arm-in-arm, we proceeded in silence, it was not so much that we had nothing to say to each other as that, fused in togetherness, not a single word was called for.
But then one Wednesday, she did not come, though I waited and waited and, descending to the town, I discovered that no one knew anything about her, or had even heard of her name.
As you will see, I can’t take any more of this. Please can you help me? Do you know where I can find Moira Fraser?”
You will imagine my dismay on being told by Douglas Campbell, the owner of “The Old Wynd Bakery”, who had heard as much from Bruce Macpherson, the manager of “The Thistle Restaurant” in Kirk Way, and a close confidant of James Menzies himself, that Archie Lennox was by now utterly bereft of the woman he loved. And that, driven to distraction as he walked the town’s cobbled streets, he would approach everyone that he came across, seeking to enlist their help in his search for Moira Fraser.
The rumor went the rounds that Archie, exhausted by his bootless quest, and yet refusing to head home, would defy each night’s plummeting temperature and stay in the town, sleeping in some doorway or other.
I use only his given name, as I will do henceforth as, reclining somewhat guiltily in the warm bed in my mother’s home, and muttering to myself the word “Archie”, although scarcely audible, like a mantra, I saw that for far too long I had stood on ceremony with this downtrodden but stalwart soul who would surely in time become my firmest of friends. And yet, as I lay there, moving my febrile body from side to side in a vain attempt at sleep, I could not get out of my mind my faithlessness towards a man who deserved far better from me.
Sensing the futility of any effort to drown my self-reproach in a sea of slumber, I switched on the bedside-lamp and saw that the late-night frost had left its imprint, like a congealed white stain, on the window.
It must have been the coldest day of the year but, cocooned in such warmth, I could not blame a faulty heating system for such wakefulness, a far seagull’s cry from those other years when we had lived in the vast, yet run-down, house by the sea and I would walk on the beach disconsolately, knowing that I was doomed to spend yet another night in the endless litany of nights without the companionable blaze of some bedfellow’s flesh.
And he also would be alone, but lying on the implacable stone, and surely not thinking of me as I was of him, but overpowered by thoughts of Moira.
It was one thing for me to endure a virtual night’s sleeplessness, getting up in the daylight to raid a well-stocked fridge and snooze in front of a well-stoked fire, and another for Archie who, his beard even longer and his hair more ruffled, and rubbing his eyes with chapped and icy hands, was forced to scrounge a few coins for some early-morning morsel.
Although lacking a single stove, the cottage’s thick-set walls would have enfolded him in a modicum of warmth, and the kitchen cupboard, no doubt containing a tin of tuna, a pack of biscuits, a jar of marmalade, would at least have attested to survival.
And yet he would have felt that were he to return to his makeshift home, even for a night, he would run the risk of being absent when Moira, coming out of nowhere, would happen to walk by.
And when that moment came, though startled by his unkemptness, she would explain, and calmly, that a mist had invaded not only her eyes but her mind, and conscious that there were outposts open to them far beyond The Ruined Tower, she would stress that she had needed time alone to think about their shared path.
And laughing girlishly, and offering to buy him some hot soup, she would tell him that she had gone because, as the dark days took hold, she was afraid that he would leave her, and that she could not take that kind of pain.
But she would affirm that, having routed her own terror, she would return to walk with him near The Sheer Drop, and would promise never again to pirouette on its edge lest his heart, as he raced to save her, give out.
But many has been the nightmare I have faced as, seeing him reach out his hands too late to save her, she has fallen gracelessly, irresistibly, into the pitiless airborne pit.
I resolved, the following day, to scour the streets and, finding him, suggested that he go with me to my home, and not for one night only, but for as long as he saw fit. More than an indifferent cook, I prepared for him generous portions of meat and vegetables, washed down with lashings of wine. Archie could, if he so wished, have the spare room but that night, sipping a fine malt, we fell asleep on the sofa to the sound of some movie’s soporific voices. All too soon, with too much weighing on our minds, we awoke to exhange accounts of our desolate affairs with women, though Archie had high hopes of lasting joy with Moira, if only he could find her.
I told him not to be too despondent, for she had no doubt holed herself away in order to buy time, as love could be a long time in the making.
My leg touching his, and wavering between fellow-feeling and my own desire, I told him that I would help to track her down, knocking on doors if necessary, and then I said something else that I later struggled to recollect, and came round in the morning, our bodies intertwined.
Getting up, I saw that he was still asleep and, not having the heart to wake him, I left the flat alone, heading towards the town center.
Arriving at The Old Wynd, I entered Douglas Campbell’s bakery and, inventing, as a pretext, my wish to buy a few scones for a fanciful high tea, I asked if he had received any news about Moira Fraser.
Looking at me blankly, he said that he had never heard of any such name, and when I mentioned Archie, going on to describe a few of his salient features, he said that he would very much like to help but that, given his feeble power of recall, he was at a loss to retrieve a single detail that could help me. It was pointless for me to insist that it was he, after all, who had told me about the Sunday in the public house when Archie had unburdened himself to James Menzies and, handing over the amount of money that was required, I left the premises.
Arriving at Kirk Way, I entered “The Thistle Restaurant” and, ordering a bowl of Cullen Skink, I picked at the pieces of haddock and potato, without appetite.
Hailing Bruce Macpherson, who made his way over to my table, I asked,
“Any more news about Moira?”
“Moira?” he questioned.
“Moira Fraser, who would walk with Archie Lennox, near The Sheer Drop.”
“Now there’s a place I haven’t been to since I was a boy,” he reminisced, and then continued, “No, I can’t say that I’ve heard of either of your friends, Moira or Alex.”
“But you were the one who said as much to Doughlas Campbell, and that you had got the news from James Menzies.”
“With just one day’s trade, I come into contact with so many faces, so many names, I get lost. Why don’t you check with the fount of wisdom himself? Even this early in the afternoon, he’s sure to be propping up the bar.”
On reaching the square, I made my way into the public house that lay opposite the church and, finding James Menzies seated in his customary place, I said without further ado, “It is imperative that I find Moira Fraser.”
Looking baffled, he countered, “I can’t help you there. I’ve never heard of her.”
“But Archie told you about her himself, and here in this very bar.”
“Who’s Archie?” he asked quizzically.
“Archie Lennox, who came up from London, and who would meet Moira Fraser near The Sheer Drop.”
“Well, whoever they may be, I hope they have a good time up there, and don’t fall off because, given the state I am in right now, I certainly would. Now, could you possibly invite me to another drink?”
I did not know whether to feel more mystified or deflated as, retracing my steps to my flat, I reflected on the motive of this unholy triad in claiming that they had no inkling whatever of Archie or Moira or their poignant trysts near The Sheer Drop. Could it be that whisky-sodden, and lurching from one bed to the next, they had felt beggared by such a narrative of selfless love, and had willed the truth away? It was not such an outlandish thought to harbor as, hungering to possess Archie, the baser part of me, rising from the blackout of the sea bed, had half hoped that Moira would never be found.
He was not at home, and nor was there any sign that he had ever been there. Thinking that perhaps the previous night’s intimacy had proved too much for him, as indeed it almost had for me, I overcame my sense of shame and made my way to the bridge where I waited long after four, but he never came.
And yet, not for a moment can I ever stop thinking about him and, as I lie in my bed in my mother’s home, in that reverie before sleep, I know that, even in all this snow, I am bound to find him.
For he has, despite his best efforts to disguise the fact, always been waiting for me. And, as he gestures to me to follow him up the steep path that leads to The Sheer Drop, I catch up with him by a knot of dense trees, and the world, or what we know of it, is plunged into darkness.
"The Power of Prose"