A note from the author: This happened some time ago, before we all found ourselves facing a rather long period of enjoying our own company.
Three friends had gone for a hike in a remote part of Argyll. It was a rugged and beautiful part of the country – a landscape dominated by towering Munros, with weather to match. And that was the source of the problem. They were all experienced hillwalkers and had all the right equipment – these were not the sort of people to tackle the mountains in trainers and open-neck shirts. They had also notified friends of exactly where they would be going and when they would expect to be back. But the weather in Scotland is something that nobody – not even the most well-prepared of us – can do anything about. And the weather on this occasion, having started benignly – it was early March – had decided to revert to mid-winter. In most countries, such u-turns are rare: in Scotland they are our normal lot, and we should simply accept it. It is best not to complain too much about the weather. As the poet W.H. Auden puts it, weather “is what nasty people are nasty about and the nice show a common joy in observing.” And on this expedition, nobody complained about the weather, even as the sky in the west grew steadily darker and the prospect of snow became not only possible but probable.
The walkers were all young and fit. One of them, Angus, was a marathon runner, and his friends, Mags and Jamie, an engaged couple from Glasgow, both teachers, regularly ventured out onto the hills. If they needed to get down quickly they would be able to do so, although even when they reached the road that snaked through the glen they would have a six-mile walk to the place where they had left the car.
The snow came on. It fell softly at first, and then in heavy veils, silencing the air around them, covering the ground with layers of white.
“This is serious,” said Angus. “I suppose we’d better head down.”
They started their descent – they had been following a high ridge – but it was a slow and treacherous business. In the blizzard conditions they could barely make out what lay more than a few feet ahead of them, and they knew that there were sharp drops not far away. Eventually Angus suggested that they should stop and take stock. “It’s too dangerous to go down in this,” he said.
Mags and Jamie agreed. “Isn’t there a bothy not far away?” asked Jamie.
Angus nodded. “We could probably find it – if that’s what you want.”
It was, and so they abandoned their descent and headed instead further long the ridge where, tucked away on the sheltered side, was a small stone bothy, used occasionally by climbers. It was weather-tight and had a stack of dry wood beside its fire place. There were four rudimentary beds, one in each corner of the room, on each of which was a mattress covered with striped ticking and stuffed with coir.
“Five stars,” said Angus, as they left themselves in. “You don’t expect a mattress.”
They lit a fire, peeled off their outer layers of clothing, and settled themselves for their stay. Angus had managed to get a signal, and had sent a message to friends, telling them that they were staying in the bothy for the night and would be down the following day, once the storm had blown over.
They looked at one another. “What are we going to do?” asked Jamie. “Has anybody brought any cards?”
Angus and Mags shook their heads.
Jamie looked at his watch. “It’s five now. We’ve got fourteen hours, I imagine. We may as well make the most of it.”
Angus and Mags stared at him. “Well, there’s not much we can do,” said Angus.
“We could talk to one another,” suggested Mags.
“About what?” asked Jamie. “Haven’t we already said just about everything we have to say to one another?”
“Possible,” agreed Angus. “But we could always …” He hesitated before continuing. “We could always tell one another stories. Just like the Decameron.”
Jamie frowned. “The Decameron?”
“Yes. Boccaccio’s Decameron. He was an Italian writer and he told the story of a group of friends who leave Florence to get out of the way of plague. This was in the fourteenth century. They went to stay in a house in the country and they told one another stories to keep one another entertained. There were ten of them and each of them told ten stories.”
Mags raised an eyebrow. ‘Ten?”
“Yes,” said Angus.
“Are you suggesting we tell one another ten stories?” asked Jamie.
“I haven’t got ten,” said Mags.
“But you will have one,” said Angus. “Everybody has at least one story.”
“Perhaps,” said Mags. She turned to Jamie. “How about you, Jamie? Have you got a story?”
Jamie smiled. “More than one.”
“We can start with one,” said Angus. “And, if you like, I’ll kick off.”
“Yes,” said Mags. “You kick off, Angus, and then I’ll follow you. Jamie can be last.”
“Do they have to be true?” asked Jamie.
Angus hesitated. “Yes, let’s make them true – or true-ish.”
“What’s the difference?” asked Mags. ‘Either something is true, or it’s not true. How can anything be true-ish?
Angus thought for a moment. “No, you’re right – or should I say, right-ish.”
They all laughed. Then Angus began.
“All right,” he said. “Here’s my story. Or rather, this is not about me, but it’s about somebody I know. His name’s Richard – and I haven’t changed that. That’s what he really is called – Richard – and he lived in Glasgow, in a small flat in the West End. He lived there with his girlfriend, Estelle, who worked for an advertising company. She had been very successful and – she knew it. She was a dominant type, you see. I don’t know whether the expression alpha-female exists or not, but that was what she was.
Now, Richard was the opposite. He was definitely not an alpha-male. If anything, he was a beta-minus-male. Oh, he was nice enough – in fact, he was really quite popular – but he was hardly what you would call assertive. He did what he was a told, I suppose – he always had.
Richard was one of those men who have always been dominated by a stronger woman. I met his mother once and, my goodness, she was not one to be tangled with. Her husband – Richard’s father – was a small, rather petite man. There’s a good Scots word for that – perjink. He was perjink. Neat and a bit fussy. A stickler for detail. He did exactly what his wife told him to do, and he knew that if he did not he would have to face the consequences – whatever those might be.
Richard was hodden doon by his mother and then, later on, by Estelle, whom he met in a bar near George Square. He and Estelle got on well, and six months later he moved in with her. That suited Richard, as he had been sharing a flat with several others and had found it noisy and uncomfortable. Estelle’s place would be much more comfortable, he thought.
It was, but he had yet to discover the drawbacks of living with an alpha-female.
Estelle made rules, and she wrote out these rules and pinned them to a notice-board in the kitchen. Richard was told what he could do and what he could not do. He was given the programme for the putting out of bins. He was told where he was to put his shoes when he took them off, and given a rota for cleaning the bathroom and kitchen. He was told which chairs he could sit on and which were reserved for Estelle’s exclusive use.
Most men would not have put up with that for long, but Richard was very mild, and so he agreed to everything that Estelle suggested. This acceptance became second-nature to him, and so when Estelle announced her most outrageous scheme, he did not object to it, but complied.
Now, I’m not making this up, Mags and Jamie. You probably won’t believe it, but it really is true. Estelle had a cat flap fitted in the front door – a cat flap large enough to admit a fully-grown man crawling on his stomach. Then she announced to Richard that she wanted her key back, and that in future he could come and go from the flat through the large cat flap. She, of course, would continue to enter by way of the door.
Did it work? Well, it did. Richard became used to coming and going through his cat flap. He tried to time his entrances and departures so that the neighbours would not see him, but inevitably they did. People laughed; they had never I imagined that anybody would agree to such a humiliating regime. But Richard did.
Of course, there were snags with the system. One of these was that neighbouring cats came and took advantage of the cat flap to come in and have a look around, and occasionally some of Richard’s mousier friends would do just that. Estelle reacted by giving Richard a collar that would trigger the release of the cat flap’s lock. That kept other cats out.
Was Richard happy? You know what? I think he was. Yes, yes, his situation must have been humiliating, but I think he took a long view. He loved Estelle, you see. People are like that – they love people even when the person whom they love does not deserve it – at least in the eyes of others.” He paused. The others were looking at him in astonishment. “And that story shows, I suppose, that there are different routes to happiness. For some, happiness is to be found in dependence on another. We shouldn’t be too quick to judge.”
Mags listened to what Angus had to say. She thought for a moment. “Actually, the idea of a cat flap for one’s boyfriend is not a bad one …’ She glanced at Jamie.
“Your turn,” Angus said to Mags. “Make it about happiness.”
Mags took a moment or two to collect her thoughts. “I’ll tell you a story told to me by my grandfather. He was German, you know – he met my grandmother in 1955 when she was serving in the WRAF in Berlin after the war. They married the following year, and he accompanied her back to Scotland. He had learned English and adapted quite well. He was a tractorman on a farm in Angus – later on, he was able to get the lease of a small farm near Forfar, and that’s where he spent the rest of his life.
After Germany surrendered, my grandfather’s family had a British officer billeted on them. Their house had been undamaged, and so they were obliged to accommodate a major from a unit of the Royal Engineers based nearby. People did it because they were obliged to. If you were German in those days, you did as you were told by the occupying forces. It was over for Germany, and nobody was in a position to resist.
The Major was a Scotsman from somewhere up north – Dornoch, I think. My grandfather showed me a picture of him – he was a very well-turned out man, with a thin military moustache and an unsmiling face. I remember the picture so well because of the serious, rather distant countenance.
My grandfather and his family were terrified. This was one of the conquerors. This man could order them to do as he willed. They were beaten, humiliated, the abject losers in a disastrous war. There were plenty of scores to settle. Even a ten-year-old boy, which my grandfather was then, knew that Germany was vanquished and on her knees.
The major was very correct in his dealings with the family. He spoke to them politely, but his voice was cold. He never smiled. They were worried about this, as they imagined that at any point he could turn vindictive and they could be bundled off into Soviet hands.
Then one day my grandfather, thinking the Major was out, crept into his room. The room allocated to the Major used to be his, and there was still a cupboard in it that was full of his possessions – his toys and his books. He had been told that he would have to wait until the Major moved on before he could get access to any of these, but he, being ten, was impatient.
The Major had not gone out, but was resting on his bed, reading a magazine. When my grandfather came in, he sat up and asked him, rather severely, what he wanted,
My grandfather was tongue-tied, but eventually managed to explain that he had just wanted to get into the cupboard.
The Major rose from his bed, adjusted his Sam Browne belt, and gestured towards the cupboard. “In there?”
My grandfather’s voice was tiny. “Yes. Please. Sir. Please.”
The Major opened the cupboard door and stood staring at the contents. Then he said, ‘You have a toy train, I see.”
My grandfather nodded. “It belonged to my older brother,” my grandfather said. “The one who …who went to Russia.”
The Major looked round at the small boy behind him. “Russia?”
The Major reached into the cupboard and took out a section of track. Then he retrieved an engine and a few carriages. “Should we build a bit of track?” he asked.
My grandfather agreed, and they built the track together. Then the Major wound the clockwork mechanism of the engine and set it down on the track.
They watched as the little train went round and round, pulling its carriages on their circular journey.
Then my grandfather said he looked up. He saw that the Major was crying.
That changed everything. The Major smiled that night as he left the house. When he came back he had several packets of coffee for the family and a packet of sausages. He stayed with them for a further two months. Then he left.
Years later, my grandfather went to visit him in Dornoch. He said that they didn’t have to say very much, but sat and looked out of the window, over the water. He said that was all that they did.”
“When the Major died, my grandfather received a letter from his daughter. She said that his father had left a letter with her, asking her to contact him. He had a book about a railway journey that he wanted her to pass on to him. He said that my grandfather would understand.”
Mags stopped. “You see?’ she said.
They nodded. They did.
Now it was Jamie’s turn. He said, “Mine will be short. It’s about an uncle of mine who was a philosopher. He was quite well-known in philosophical circles. He wrote about the Scottish Enlightenment – about Hume and Smith, and people like that. He taught at St Andrews, and also at Aberdeen and Edinburgh. He was sometimes on the radio, talking about duties and obligations – that sort of thing. His great phrase was Live your life well. I remember his saying that to me from when I was about five upwards. Of course, when you’re five, these things pass over your head for the most part, but later on I came to listen carefully to what my uncle said. I used to boast to my friends, “My uncle’s a philosopher.” And they would look at me and say, “So?”
When I was a teenager, my uncle sent me a copy of an article he had written. He called it “On the imperfections of friends”, and it was all about how one’s friends might have all sorts of imperfections once one started to look for them. He said it was our duty to look for the imperfections of our friend, as not to do so would be to condone them.
Now my uncle had a good number of friends, but after the publication of this article, he found himself being cold-shouldered by just about everybody. Most of his friends were philosophers, and they had all read his paper and had realised that he saw many flaws in them. They were angry that he should see through them and notice all the foibles and failures they were only too keen to hide.
My uncle found himself shunned. He was very disappointed, and immediately wrote another paper that he called “My friends – their finer points.” In this paper he made the case for looking for one’s friends better features. “It’s only too easy to be negative.” he wrote, ‘but negativity is a great mistake. Be positive about your friends.”
He made sure that all his former friends received a copy of this paper. They did, but it seemed to make no difference. They still cold-shouldered him and invited him to none of their philosophical meetings.
My uncle was very disappointed, and so he decided to change tack. He now wrote a paper called “When to forgive” which was all about the philosophy of forgiveness. He sent copies of this paper to all his contacts. “We have to forgive others,” he wrote. “If we don’t, we stop the future from happening. So why burden yourself with the resentments of the past?”
“That worked. His friends came back to him. He was happy once again.”
The stories told, they looked at one another. Then they looked through the window – the storm had passed, much more quickly than they had anticipated. “I think we can go,” said Angus. “We can make it this evening after all.”
They slid down the hill, laughing and shouting. The they started to make their way along the road that led down the glen to their parked car. As they walked in silence, the evening beginning to draw its gentle darkness over the world, Angus thought of what he had said in his own story. Forgiveness. It had so much work to do. So much. Then he thought of the Major: why had he cried? Because of the War? Or the train? Or the boy? And then the cat flap? He could not work out exactly what that story meant, but then not every story has to mean something. Sometimes a story just is – like the world it exists within.
Then he thought: what would it be like to be stuck with others for a much longer time? Would we have enough stories? Probably, he thought – and smiled. And if we ran out, we could always make them up.
This story first appeared in The Sunday Post.