Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 31


If we accept that life imitates Art, then writers, artists, architects, and musicians are culpable for most of humanity's blunders. Certainly, the architects of cold, grey, granite Aberdeen must take some blame for that city's dour inhabitants. The bleak youth hostel squatting in a row of similar stone dwellings, opened its doors at five o'clock. Hikers were given preference, so veteran hostellers parked their cars and motorbikes a block away, donned rucksacks and staggered to the door.

I parked my scooter outside, was rewarded with a scowl, allocated a bed, and informed that doors would be locked at ten. An unattractive Norwegian in the next bed jerked off noisily then snored all night. Before I was granted parole in the morning, I had to clean the toilets.

Apart from the gothic tower on King's College and the grim Salvation Army Citadel, all I remember is a dank park inhabited by vicious ravens cawing abuse as they plummeted from bare trees, razor-claws raking the air inches from my scalp. Aberdeen is a port at the confluence of two rivers, and also boasts sandy beaches, but as the temperature seldom gets above 60°F even in mid-summer, they aren't often used. The North Sea, as grey as the city and as wild as the ravens, was smashing itself against the granite sea wall, launching spray dozens of feet into the air.

A blue-kneed old codger in a kilt was barking noisily at a grizzled Scotch terrier that was yapping back at him from its vantage point on the wall. Thinking the old man was literally barking mad and the terrier was too frightened to move I bounded up, copped a drenching from a wave, and carried the startled hound back to its master.

"Stupid interfering idiot," he snarled. "The dog was obeying orders!" As I'd been wearing just about every stitch of clothing I possessed, I wasted an hour in a launderette drying wet things.

The following morning, I discovered the source of all that grim granite – a circular quarry of incredible depth that attracted not only tourists, but an unsurprising number of suicides, according to a depressed and very fat woman peering over the edge. As she sounded ready to hurl herself into the void, I extended her the courtesy I hope to receive when I'm ready to quit this mortal plane – wished her luck and left her to it.

The home of highland games in Braemar was a bleak and windswept oval graced by a grandstand just large enough to seat the Royals and local Lairds. The village might have been cute in summer, but it rained, and with a dozen other drenched and freezing youth-hostellers I endured the meagre shelter of bare trees until the hostel guardian, visible through his window imbibing tea and cakes beside the fire, checked his watch, slowly walked to the door, waited until the clock chimed five o'clock, then unlocked and grudgingly granted us entry.

Everyone raced for the kitchen where the smells of bacon and eggs, baked beans, toast and coffee set tastebuds watering. My oatmeal porridge didn't really compete, but it was muscle-building, occupied scant space, and required little preparation and clean up.

I always felt out of place in youth hostels and avoided them when possible – all that bonhomie, sharing of tales, swapping of information and addresses, promises to meet again. Everyone anxious to ensure they would never be alone; forever travelling in groups surrounded by a babble of banality; never experiencing places in silence, never faced with the scary truth that your survival is up to you – in those days without a mobile phone.

My map, torn from an old school atlas, showed a road that ran more or less direct from Braemar to Inverness, so I set out, not realising it crossed a range of mountains. Sleet was falling as I passed the fairy-tale towers of Balmoral Castle, and snow set in an hour later. The road climbed and narrowed. Snow drifts piled up on both sides and a pair of skiers zipped across directly over my head, unaware they'd missed me by inches.

Poor little Lambretta struggled on through the blizzard – alone because no one else was stupid enough to take that road. I had no goggles and again was wearing every piece of clothing I owned, keeping an eye out for a croft, a barn, or a snow drift in which to burrow in case the scooter broke down. I knew igloos were warm because ice is an insulator, so wasn't too worried; not realising that arctic ice is dry; Scottish snow melts and makes you very, very wet and cold.

Fortunately, I was spared that discovery and arrived just on nightfall in Inverness, made straight for the railway station and collapsed in front of a cup of tea and sandwiches in the cafeteria, unable to do anything except shake uncontrollably. My teeth were clattering so hard I feared they'd shatter. The waitress thought I was suffering from Delirium Tremens – gave a little scream and retreated.

Shortly after, a young policeman approached and demanded to know what I'd been drinking. I managed to explain, so he took my arm and led me to the police post at the end of the concourse; a tiny room containing a desk, chair, and a large electric heater going full blast.

"You're soaking wet! No wonder you can't warm up. Change your clothes!" I stuttered I was wearing everything I owned, so he closed and locked the door and told me to strip. I couldn't, my fingers refused to move. He cautiously undid all the buttons and zips, peeled everything off, handed me a towel and went to retrieve my tea and sandwiches. He was very tall and pale and gangly with a pleasant countenance, so I laid on the charm as I towelled, giving him the chance to ogle my bits if he wanted.

He ogled, a promising sign as heterosexuals always look away, and by the time I'd finished my tea he knew the essentials; I was from London, knew no one in Inverness, was looking for a place to sleep the night, would be gone in the morning never to return, and thought he was extremely handsome. He grunted and left the room, returning with trousers, shirt, jacket and overcoat from the lost property box.

The following morning, having proved the truth of the rumour that tall skinny guys are well hung, I donned my dry clothes, bade him a fond farewell, scootered around town to admire the river, park, and castle, then puttered north.

The Duchess of Sutherland's Victorian 'medieval castle' had been converted into a youth hostel. Half a dozen self-conscious students on a university biology trip were the only other inmates. After my evening porridge, for lack of other diversion I surveyed with sinking heart the castle's kitsch decorative excesses. In the Great Hall I was approached by a short, dark young man of about sixteen; one of the students. He'd been following me. We chatted briefly about everything except his overt desire for sex; and I felt old.

The difference was only seven years, but into those seven years I'd squeezed a hell of a lot of experience. I didn't want a callow youth filled with innocent ignorance. I wanted someone who had experienced the world and knew who he was and what he wanted – someone I could grow old and more experienced with. Such obvious interest from a young man was flattering, but didn't turn me on, so I wished him luck and retired to my cot for a wank.

Far north Scotland is bleak, treeless, and mildly hilly, and the east coast road provides pretty sea views, bays, and bridges. Dounreay Nuclear Power Station looked suitably ominous and uninviting. The northernmost tip of the British mainland (as far north as the Alaskan state capital of Juneau) boasted a boatshed, a broken dinghy on a sandy beach, a few rocks, and a view across to the Orkney Islands. I was the only person there and desperately wanted to plunge naked into Scarpa Flow, but it was too cold.

Today, hundreds of thousands of visitors descend on the place every year, so there's good accommodation, caravan and camping sites, a craft village, shops, ferries to the Orkneys, wild-life tours, exhibitions, and museums. I remain grateful to have seen it in its 'original' state.

It's always an odd feeling to reach the 'end of the land'. The only thing one can do is return – which I did, taking the inland road, arriving at nightfall at a petrol pump in front of a crumbling croft. The suspicious woman who served me 2-Stroke mix, gave grudging permission to sleep in the hay loft above the cow shed, pre-empting any further requests by snapping that it wasn't an inn and her man would soon be home for his tea. He would be tired, so I wasn't to make a nuisance of myself. A dour evening with a Highland crofter was to be avoided, so I hived off to the barn, swallowed cold porridge and, wrapped in a horse blanket, made myself comfortable, if not warm.

On a lonely stretch of road miles from anywhere I passed a road sweeper's cart containing half a dozen handmade birch brooms. A hundred yards further, an old man was busily sweeping. Highland cows swathed in long, rich red hair peered curiously through their fringes from the shelter of pines. Glens provided long vistas to the lochs of the west coast, where inward-looking, ominous stone villages still endured the heavy yoke of Scottish Calvinism.

Villagers would have stones thrown through windows if they played the radio, sang, or did any kind of work on Sunday – even urgent repairs. Prettification for tourists was inconceivable, and a proposed naval base in one of the more beautiful, deep-water lochs was arousing great anger. Ancient hills covered with springy heath promised grand views, so I climbed. They are hard walking and the curve of the hills so regular and gentle it's impossible to know when you've reached the top. It just keeps on curving until eventually you realise you're descending.

The Isle of Skye is only a few hundred metres across the water from Kyle of Lochalsh. Today a modern bridge carries thousands of tourists. Then, an ancient ferry conveyed the few travellers and locals. Prince Charlie's island is bleakly spectacular with mountains, valleys, hundreds of inlets, and a rugged coastline. Halfway to Uig, my accelerator cable snapped. I slipped it from the sleeve and rode with one hand pulling on it till Portree – a tiny village with a friendly, creative mechanic who made one up, charging me only for parts. His sister ran a guest house, my base for a couple of days. I was intending to return to the mainland on Sunday – except when I arrived at the wharf: no ferries! God forbid.

Sure by Tummel and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go, by heather tracks wi' heaven in their wiles… I won a beautiful silver cup singing that in a competition at high school, and belted it out as I rode in the opposite direction. The lakes are beautiful. There was a lone piper in a kilt by the water in Lochaber. I seemed to be the only traveller scooting along through a mysterious quiet world of swirling mists and barren hills.

"Why get a scooter instead of a motorbike?" I'd been asked. The first reason was Italian films in which handsome young men zipped around Rome on scooters. But the main reason is you sit comfortably upright, able to see the scenery without straining your neck. It's the next best thing to a magic carpet. And there's no temptation to race – top speed was about forty miles per hour; and no need for special clothing.

As a kid I loved travelling and hated returning home to the drab bickering of family life. The journey, I realised, is the fun part. The final destination is the same for us all – death, so we might as well enjoy the trip and not be in such a hurry. Hurtling through the sky in tin tubes seeing nothing is not travelling, especially when you arrive at a place virtually identical to the one you've just left.

On what turned out to be my last trip to Edinburgh, I was saying goodbye to arrow-pierced Saint Sebastian in the Scottish National Art Gallery when someone said, "Taylor?" I froze. The only place I'd been called by my surname was at high school and although I hadn't had a bad time I hated everything about it, especially the assumption that everyone was a patriotic, rugby-playing philistine. I pretended I hadn't heard but he said my name again, so I turned.

It was seven years since I'd seen my physics teacher, but he looked no older – just a trifle shorter and less imposing. The olive skin and heavy five o'clock shadow was the same, but instead of cool disdain, his eyes seemed insecure.

I think I was too surprised at running into him so far from home to think, so I just nodded a greeting and wondered how I could have been in love with him. He wasn't really sexy. Politeness forced me to accept an invitation to coffee in the cafeteria where, after swapping superficial details about our lives, he said he'd been thinking about me lately and wanted to apologise. I wondered if he'd lost his marbles.

After a fair bit of beating around the bush, he told me he'd recently endured an acrimonious divorce and, unable to remain in New Zealand for a variety of reasons, had returned to his roots and was teaching in Glasgow.

I nodded, wondering what on earth he had to apologise for.

"I'm sorry for saying you were like a lovesick schoolgirl," he blurted.

I was surprised, of course, but more by the tears that began trickling down my cheeks than by his apology. At the time, I'd been ashamed that my 'love' had been dismissed so callously, but thought I'd got over it. Obviously, I hadn't.

"You see," he continued, "I've since realised that the feelings men have for each other are just as valid as those they might feel for women, and it was callous and hurtful of me to say what I did, especially to a sensitive sixteen-year-old."

There was a silence while I wondered where this was heading, and then the penny dropped.

"You mean you…?"

He nodded self-consciously and looked so pathetic I decided to let him off the hook.

"Me too."

He sighed, smiled and told me he had a 'friend' in Glasgow and…

I felt slightly jealous but happy for him.

We shook hands as equals and wished each other all the best. He, relieved to have righted what he saw as a wrong; me, uplifted by the proof that my feelings and hopes had been validated. Because of what he'd said all those years ago I'd unconsciously assumed that if I loved a man it would be an inferior type of love to that of 'real' men for women. A burden had been lifted and I realised my spirit was dying in Scotland. I needed to travel again. Returning to Alloa, I handed in my resignation effective from the end of the camp, and sought out Prue.

If my ex-teacher was courageous enough to set the record straight, I should be too. Relations had been strained since I'd made excuses for not continuing a sexual relationship with her, and I knew she was suffering badly from this second rejection. I took her aside and explained. She stared at me to make sure I wasn't lying, then said, "That means…"

"That means you're a very sexy lady indeed to have aroused me. It's never happened before, but it wouldn't be fair to continue. Forgive me?"

She was quietly ecstatic. Grinned and cried a little and hoped I'd be happy. Insisted we keep in touch – which we did for several years until she found a new lover who appreciated her – and I felt decent again.

Foolishly, one evening in the staffroom I mentioned that I was going to hitch-hike across North Africa. Gerald, an uncoordinated, lanky denizen of Toronto offered to buy my scooter. Duff, who hailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, asked if he could join me. The scooter I was glad to sell, but travelling with a conservative, taciturn, straight male? No way! I needed to be alone! But he insisted in front of everyone. If I'd refused he'd have looked an awful ass and I didn't dislike him that much, so caved in.

On the day the camp ended Gerald set out for Ireland and fell off a couple of miles down the road, smashing his teeth and jaw, wrecking the scooter, and spending a fortnight in hospital.

Duff and I hitched south.

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