I woke with a start, for a moment or two disoriented, my surroundings unfamiliar.
The brakes of the diesel-electric squealed as the train drew into the station, bringing the latest crowd of commuters home from whatever their toils were in Aberdeen.
I let most of them go in front of me – I was in no great hurry to leave the warmth of the carriage.
As I descended on to the platform, a flash from over fifty years ago made me stop. The old pedestrian footbridge was still there, but now really showing its age and lack of maintenance, grey flakes of paint hanging like autumnal leaves, clumps of silky spider web shivering in the icy wind gusting between the train and the buildings either side of the tracks. The smell of smoke, coal and hot oil somehow managed to permeate my nostrils, bringing back that original fear when I saw, for the very first time, the huge, black steam engine roar under that bridge. I had never seen anything before so enormous, so powerful, so fear-inducing, yet so majestic.
A grunt of “Come on, Grand-dad. Get a move on. We’ve homes to go to,” broke my reverie and that nightmare scenario of a seven-year-old vanished just as quickly as it appeared.
I stood alone on the platform a few minutes later, more memories fleeting in and out of focus.
There was Pete Mitchel – a good six inches taller and two years older than me - leaning over the huge mahogany table in the waiting room. We were early – as we always were – waiting for the first goods train from Aberdeen with its bundles of “P&Js” – the Press and Journal – North East Scotland’s window to the world’s news and the spreader of all local tittle-tattle. The waiting room table was polished to a mirror-like finish, ideal for ‘shove-halfpenny – such an innocent yet competitive pastime for us paper-boys before we set out, whatever the weather, to bring the black and white world to the breakfast tables of Inverurie.
And that memory expanded to Roy Strachan, father of Mike who was in my class at school. He was a bit of an empire builder in Inverurie, if you could have such a thing as an ‘empire’ in such a small town, with two stationers and a toyshop with his name over the doors in High Street. He was a kind man, the sort of man I wished my own father had been. He would take Mike to Aberdeen every Saturday in the football season to watch “The Dons” play at Pittodrie – one week the First Team when they were playing at home, the next to see the Reserves, scrutinising who might have the potential to earn a place with the Big Boys next season.
But the memory of Roy Strachan dispersed to be replaced by that of my father. This setting, on a cold, damp evening with massive black storm clouds gathering over the hills to the north, brought back much more foreboding times, times I wish I could just lock away, never to be released again.
With a deep sigh, I tried to shake off those memories and made my way to the taxi stand just outside the station, with three black Fords in a line, shining their attendance for the next customer.
“Kings Arms Hotel, please.”
The driver grunted acknowledgement and started the engine. He hesitated from driving off, taking a few seconds to reflect on his new fare. I noticed him eyeing me up in the mirror, the orange streetlights illuminating the rear seats just enough for him to be able to make out my face.
“Do I know you?” he asked in a voice which seemed to play with his own thoughts. The stress on the ‘know’ worried him – he clearly thought that he did know me, but that came from something well-hidden in some long-forgotten memory.
“Maybe,” I replied. “It’s been quite a few years since I was last here.”
He looked at me again in the rear-view mirror. Something was niggling him, but he just could not dig out that little nugget from some deep recess. A shrug, and his attention quickly adjusted to the job in hand.
But I recognised him – Jim Rose, a year younger than me. I suppose it was the bottle-bottom specs he wore which gave him away – he was practically blind without them and not much better with them. How he ever managed to secure a job as a taxi driver bewildered me. I remembered when he turned up – the first time! – for his driving test. The examiner posed the customary task of reading a number plate about twenty-five yards away. Jim replied that he had forgotten his specs and could not read it. The examiner asked if he wanted to postpone the test while he went home for them, but Jim told him that it would make no difference – even with his specs he would not be able to read the number plate! Laugh if you must, but that is not a word of a lie, yet to my total amazement, he did eventually pass his test.
I sat back and watched the old railway workers’ houses pass by as we headed towards the town centre. How things had changed. No longer the dreary two-up two-down Victorian basic dwellings with their outside toilets. They had all been converted and extended into modern housing – new front doors, double glazing, the former immaculate front gardens transformed into gravelled parking spaces and Sky dishes pointing to the heavens to beam in the obligatory 24-hour entertainment.
I wondered what else had changed since I left all those years ago. The influence of oil would have had an effect – if nothing else, it would have driven up house prices and created massive demands on former green-belt land for new accommodation along with all the services needed to keep incomers happy.
Sure enough, as we entered Market Square, heading for High Street, the range of shops I had known as a child had disappeared to be replaced by the bland marks you could see on any main street in any town or city. It never ceased to amaze me just how many coffee shops were required to quench the appetite of people with nothing better to do than lounge around chatting – on- or off-line.
Gone was Gray’s bakery – my grandfather, a master baker, had worked there for over twenty years before his untimely heart attack, leaving my grandmother to bring up three children on her own. My mother had to leave school at fourteen to work in the shoe shop to help make ends meet – something she regretted her entire life and probably the reason she pushed me so hard at my education. That shoe shop had also disappeared, another casualty of the attraction of the big named stores in Aberdeen.
Gone too was Simpson’s butchers. Roy Simpson was in my year at school and lived in one of the silver granite houses in a rather select street of similar buildings near the school. On the whole, I quite liked Roy. Like me, he was a bit on the ‘chubby’ side and we always battled to see who would not come in last in the cross-country running races when the sports masters couldn’t be bothered to set up anything more exciting on a Wednesday afternoon. I read somewhere – probably Facebook – that he had moved to Hong Kong. I suppose I should also have disliked him more than I did because we both had a crush on the same girl in our later years at school - Susan Rogers. I don’t know what it was in particular about Susan, she just had that secret “something”. Susan was the daughter of ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa’ Rogers, twin heads of the Geography Department, and very bright. Our lusting after her came to nothing as she left school a year earlier than us to take a place at Cambridge.
But Watson’s Ironmongery was still there in its prime position at the head of the triangular Market Square. I had found an old postcard on eBay a couple of years ago showing Market Square in bygone times before cars had infiltrated local life. It showed Watson’s in its prime position, all manner of stock spread in front of the wide windows, and a rotund, moustachioed man, arms folded, standing proud in front of it all.
The taxi slowed and pulled up in front of the hotel. I handed Jim a couple of notes to cover the fare as well as a handsome tip.
“Keep the change,” I said, lingering long enough to ensure that he managed to get a better look at me and, perhaps, to help jog that lost memory.
Torn between assuaging his concern at not recognising me and thanking me for my generosity, he just sat there as I stepped out into the biting wind. He continued to watch me as I lifted my suitcase and turned towards the hotel entrance. Jim was never one of the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree, but it amused me to witness his inner turmoil.
Having checked in – “Yes, two nights. No, just me, but a double room.” – and unpacked my suitcase, rumbles of hunger reminded me that I had not eaten much since breakfast. I scanned the room-service offerings but nothing took my fancy, so I headed down to the dining room, selecting a small table at the edge of the room which allowed me to watch the comings and goings. The room was reasonably busy, a smattering of couples of all ages, a couple of larger families and four other single guests.
One of the single guests intrigued me. He looked about my age and there was something familiar about him. His balding head and grey beard didn’t help the identification. Worrying that I was turning into Jim Rose, I wracked my brains for something to force a name to him. I could see that he was a guest at the hotel as well, as his room key was sitting on the table, so there was only one thing for it.
As the waiting staff were still looking after the other diners, I went back to Reception and asked the young girl – layering the charm as heavily as I could – if the fictitious Mr Balquhain had arrived yet. The charm worked – well, to a degree anyway – as she opened the listing page of guests. The computer screen was angled too awkwardly for me to read.
“I can’t see anyone with that name. How do you spell it?”
“Let me look for you,” and I leant over and twisted the screen towards me.
I quickly scanned the list of about a dozen guests and there, third from the bottom, was the elusive name – Ian Sutherland!
“No, he’s not listed. Maybe he’s booked into a different hotel. Sorry to have disturbed you.”
She smiled as I twisted the computer screen back towards her.
Back in the dining room, I ordered and sat back. The Gigondas wine was presented, opened and poured. As I savoured its rich aromas, I looked back at Ian Sutherland.
Ian “Ted” Sutherland – nicknamed because one of his early girlfriends had likened him to a Teddy Bear. To this day, I’m not sure if she had been referring to his “cuddliness” or his shape, but the name stuck. Ted blew hot and cold with his friends – at times he would want to be included in everything we got up to, yet at others he could be quite aloof, ignoring us almost, until his wind changed direction again.
At times he could be quite arrogant. There were often only two ways of doing things – Ted’s way or the wrong way – and woe betide you if you didn’t do it Ted’s way when he was in one of those moods.
When I first knew Ted, he and his family lived in one of the ‘prefab’ houses at the edge of the golf course. These were remnants from the post-war housing expansion – temporary buildings which lasted much longer than their expected life expectancy. But Ted’s family – and the others in similar accommodation – were moved to brand new houses to the north of the town and that’s probably the time when Ted’s attitude changed – he was out of the ‘slum’ estate and into the ‘posh’ environment.
He was also quite vain and always wanting to be better than the rest of us. At university, he joined the Air Cadets, training to be a pilot, but his size and shape didn’t match the demanding rules. So he turned to helicopters and Air-Sea Rescue in particular, with its less formal height requirements. He began mixing with other flight crew and quickly realised that, in order to fit in, he would need to be seen driving a more up-market car than the Minis, Cortinas and Vivas the rest of us were running around in. His first was a soft-top Triumph Vitesse, which he managed to roll and write off one Saturday evening on the way home from one of his training flights. The insurance pay-out went towards another soft-top, this time a Triumph TR4a. This model had independent rear suspension and proclaimed this to the world with a small chrome badge on the rear boot with the initials “IRS”, which just happened to be those of Ian Raymond Sutherland.
My reminiscing was interrupted by the arrival of my main course which, I have to confess, looked better on the plate than it actually tasted, but it served its purpose in quelling the hunger pangs. As I was mopping up the last of the peppercorn sauce, I noticed Ted leave the restaurant, totally oblivious to everyone else – nothing changed there, then.
As I sat with my coffee, I started to wonder if I had made the right decision in coming back. Yes, it had brought back many memories – some good, some bad – some sad, some happy – some memorable, some forgettable. But tomorrow would be the decisive moment.
I slept badly, partly because it was a strange bed, albeit in a familiar location, but also partly due to the vivid dreams, mainly of other characters from my earlier life in North-East Scotland. Bizarre situations with faces I recognised in locations around the town which didn’t exactly haunt me, more vexed me, through the long night.
A long hot shower helped ease things in the morning and a good old-fashioned Scottish breakfast set me up to face the day ahead. There was no sign of Ted, maybe he was an early riser. The previous night’s concerns were behind me and it was too late in the day to reconsider my decision to return to my birthplace.
I spent the morning and early afternoon walking up and down the two main streets, catching myself tutting at some of the changes to the town, even succumbing to a coffee in one of the new cafes. As I had done so many times on Saturday mornings many years ago on the way to my grandmother’s house to do her weekly shop, I stopped on the bridge spanning the fast-flowing river Don, searching for the salmon sheltering behind rocks, their tails beating slowly to counter the strong currents.
I returned to the hotel, showered again and dressed in my understanding of smart-casual. A call from Reception advised me that my taxi was waiting. Hoping that it wasn’t Jim Rose again, I dropped off my room key, stepped outside and boarded the black Ford. It wasn’t Jim, thank goodness.
Traffic was quite light and it took less time than I had envisaged to arrive at the venue. Keith Hall House, a large Scots Renaissance mansion dating back to the sixteenth century loomed in front of us. The ornate entrance, between the two huge square towers, shone brightly in the rapidly dimming winter afternoon. As the taxi drew to a halt by the foot of the stairway, what could only be described as a ‘butler’ trotted down to open the door.
“Good afternoon, sir, and welcome to Keith Hall House. May I see your invitation, please?”
“Certainly” and as I stepped out of the taxi, I pulled the gold embossed card from my jacket pocket and handed it over.
‘Butler’ scanned the card. “Thank you, Mr Murphy. Please follow me,” and he led the way, up the broad stone staircase, though the dark oak doors to the entrance to the Great Hall.
Only now did I start to feel nervous. Only now did it dawn on me that it had been the best part of fifty years since I had seen those on the other side of this door. Who would be there? Would I recognise anybody? Would anybody recognise me? Would we all have changed? And, if so, was it for the better?
Deep breath, turn the handle and push…
The silence of the entrance hall was replaced by a general hubbub of conversations, with the odd high-pitched laugh.
I entered the room, subconsciously aware of the bright chandeliers, the gilded ceiling and the array of oil paintings on the walls. A few heads turned to see who was joining them. Quickly scanning the room, my eyes fell on one person. She was sipping champagne, but there was something about her. Something I recognised about her, but could not quite explain, intrigued me.
She lowered her glass and turned her head towards me. She smiled, her lips parting slightly.
It was Susan Rogers!