A journey to her Scottish hometown makes a writer’s past come alive
The omens are equivocal. It is not actually raining, but as I choose my clothes at 7 a.m., Kirsty, still in her nightdress, comes into my room. “Margot,” she says, “why aren’t you married?” Why indeed, I think, skidding wildly down some long, dark alleyway into the past. “I forgot,” I say. “Should I wear my black jeans?” But Kirsty, a diligent questioner, is not so easily put aside. “Why did you forget?” she asks.
I am in Edinburgh, visiting Kirsty and her parents, and today is set aside to go to Glenalmond, the valley where I grew up. As I drive out of the city, I do my best to put aside Kirsty’s questions. Instead I ponder this mysterious business of a journey with its implied beginning and ending. But Glenalmond was not a place I ever journeyed to—it was the place I was, most fully and completely—and if I am to journey there now, I need a place to start. Where should I begin? I round a bend and suddenly the road unwinds before me in total familiarity. I am in Blackhall, an Edinburgh suburb, and the answer is obvious.
Just a few yards from the main road is 4 Craigcrook Place, the home of my redoubtable great aunts. The old heavy door has been replaced, but there is nothing newfangled, like a lock or an intercom, to bar my progress. Inside even the dustbins seem unchanged. The aunts’ flat was the outermost star in my childhood cosmography. We visited them twice a year, an immense journey for which my stepmother packed sandwiches and a thermos of tea. Now I whiz there along modern roads. An hour later I am entering Methven, the drab village where we came to catch the bus, post letters, buy treats. I stop at Lawson’s garage, where my father brought his cars, each more decrepit than the last, all called Henry. The man who sells me gas tells me that Mr. Lawson died shortly before Christmas. I tell him I am going to Glenalmond. “Oh, you’ll notice lots of changes,” he says. “All the big houses.” I imagine the valley filed with skyscrapers: Manhattan in Arcadia.
Opposite the post office I turn off for Glenalmond. The narrow road climbs steadily for four miles, and every bend and hummock is familiar. When I broach the final rise into the valley, my heart is racing, and I pull over. Gradually the tink-tink of the motor fades until I can distinguish the sounds we casually call silence: the wind in the fields, the hum of insects, the bird song. On the far side of the river a long line of hills fills the horizon. Looking from east to west, I see the slate quarries, the circular wood, and the dark, scree-covered slopes of Sma’Glen.
Until the age of eight I lived in Glenalmond, happily ignorant of the rest of the world. My life divides along several fault lines—the death of my mother when I was two and a half, going to an English university, falling in love with a Canadian—but leaving this valley that I knew tree by tree, stone by stone, remains in some ways the most irrevocable of these faults, something done to me for mysterious adult reasons that can never be undone or made whole again.
As I walk up Front Avenue and along the Main Road I notice in the well-kept grounds an unfamiliar presence: a Coke can under a bush, a candy wrapper caught in the grass. When I was growing up there was no litter—what would cause it? We had no soft drinks, sweets were doled out one by one, there were no leaflets, no junk mail. People unwrapped parcels carefully, smoothing out the paper to use again, coiling the string. I tut-tut under my breath.
I continue up the hill towards my first home: Bell’s Cottage. I lived here with my father, who taught at the public school, and a succession of women: my mother, Little Aunt, my stepmother. In my memory it has a grim aura, a grey harled house with a grey door. Today, however, geraniums blossom in the windows and swallows twitter back and forth beneath the eaves. I am gazing longingly at my bedroom window, not quite daring to look in, when the front door opens and a woman in shorts appears. Embarrassed to be caught gaping, I continue on my way toward the golf course.
The last time I came here, a dozen years ago, was to see the bench presented by the old boys in memory of my father. He spent many happy hours hitting a ball round these fairways. The bench, a simple wooden one with a brass plaque, overlooked the first fairway. A single bench stands not far from where I remember and I head toward it, hopefully. But it belongs to some clerk, the plaque announces, who served the school for a meager decade. I am irked.
I leave the golf course and walk the mile to the main school. At the back of the chapel, surrounded by a dense, dark hedge, lies a small graveyard. I find several unexpected inhabitants: my godfather, a flamboyant master whom I last saw at the bar of the Murray Park Hotel in Crieff; the college electrician whose surname, Proudfoot, gave us children considerable satisfaction; the science master who refused to let me come to the school to study science and to whom I probably owe my present occupation. My father, once again, is missing.
He died when I was 22; I realize I have absolutely no memory of his funeral. I wish I had been a more dutiful daughter. It occurs to me that I have never seen my mother's grave either. Somehow I know she is buried in Harrietfield, the tiny village across the river.
Harrietfield consists of a few dozen cottages. Even so it takes me a while to locate the church, tucked away behind the single large house. The door is locked. Through the dusty window I see rows of dusty pews. No graveyard.
Back in the car, I study the map and discover the graveyard, a mile away near Chapel Hill. It is already late afternoon, but I cannot leave without paying my final respects. A Hungarian friend taught me the Russian custom of sitting down for one minute before leaving a place; in a life full of departures, I have come to find this ritual useful.
Close to Chapel Hill, a rough track leads off to the right. I glimpse a cross. This must be it, I think, and swerve onto the track. Almost immediately, I realize my mistake. What am I doing? I think, and, even as the thought bubbles up, the car sticks fast. I turn off the engine. Once again I am alone with the intricate silence.
I walk to the graveyard—after all, that is why I am here—and push open the black iron gate. Several of the stones have fallen and many are blurred with moss and lichen. Soon it becomes apparent that this graveyard has not been in use for many years; none of the graves is later than 1920. Feeling doubly foolish, I jog to the nearest steading. A man emerges, holding a hammer. “I’m stuck in a ditch,” I blurt out. “Do you have a phone or a tractor?”
“There’s a phone upstairs,” he says calmly. “And a couple of chaps came by with a tractor a minute ago. Let’s see if they’re still here.”
In the barn two unlikely angels are seated on a bale of hay, smoking cigarettes: a weatherbeaten man with no teeth, and a fat man, shirtless, his fly undone. “Och, you’ll be stuck in the dip,” the fat man remarks jovially when my predicament is explained.
“It’ll cost you,” chuckles the toothless one. “Fifty pounds an hour.”
I return to the car. The fat man shows up with a tractor and a shirt. He hooks me up, pulls me back to the road, then asks, hesitantly, what I was doing. I tell him. “You want the new graveyard,” he says, pointing. “Just down there. Don’t take the car.” He refuses payment.
I hurry, worried now that I won’t have time to find my mother’s grave. Hastily, dourly, I search the monuments. And there she is, fifth from the gate along the wall. The stone is quite small, no larger than a pillow, with Eva’s name and my father’s and my own: “Beloved wife of Kenneth Livesey, mother of Margot.” I stare at it, consumed. Then I lie down on the grass, pressing myself close, closer, trying to still my beating heart.
This sounds embarrassingly morbid, but in fact it was the reverse: not morbid but vivid—full of life. After my decades of neglect, there she was, Eva, my mother, unscathed. As a writer I’ve spent years wallowing in the past, subscribing to various theories: It’s writ in stone, writ in water, can never be known, can never be escaped, must be remembered, and so on. My answer to Kirsty was a desperate lie. My problem is not forgetting but the reverse: a surfeit of memory.
This evening, however, as I drive back to Edinburgh beneath a full moon, the past sits beside me, easy as an old friend. Forget the Heisenberg principle, which claims that the observer always alters the thing observed. What I learned today was my own irrelevance. The past exists irrespective of my observation—I can pay attention, or not: who gives a toss?—but the present, the difficult, intractable present, lies all around me, and it’s time now to reach towards it, greedily, with both hands.