Cauldstane - an Extract

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CHAPTER ONE

Sometimes I think I can still hear – very faintly – the strains of a harpsichord. Impossible, of course. There’s been no harpsichord at Cauldstane for over a year now. Meredith’s has never been replaced. Never will be replaced.

I suspect it’s not so much that I hear music, rather that I remember it. It’s proved impossible to forget, though God knows, I’ve tried. We’ve all tried.

It’s tempting to think I’m experiencing some sort of aftershock, hearing the ripples of a “big bang” that will echo down the years, perhaps until I die. If sound waves went on and on, becoming weaker, then I might believe I could actually hear something, hear those keys touched by long-dead fingers, years after the sound was made. But Rupert, who knows about such things, says sound doesn’t go on forever. Eventually it’s absorbed, both by the medium it passes through and by the things the sound waves encounter. In the physical world we know, nothing lasts forever. A thought I find strangely comforting.

Meredith’s harpsichord is long gone, so if her music persists, it’s only in my head.

But Meredith? Where is she now?...

~~~

By rights, Sholto MacNab should have been dead. Several times over. The fact that he wasn’t, that he was very much alive, furnished me with a career opportunity, a modest fee and a remarkable home. He invited me to come and stay at Cauldstane Castle so I could ghost-write his memoirs for him. Dyslexic in an age when few had even heard the word, Sholto had grown up unable to spell and had only a nodding acquaintance with punctuation – an affectation, he said, for which he had neither time nor use.

Sholto was more familiar with short wave radio than email, so when I received my contract of employment, it was accompanied by a misspelled covering note that I now treasure. It said, So glad your finaly on board. Every castle should have its ghost.

Just as every old Highland family should have its curse – something Sholto failed to mention. But even if he had, I would still have taken the job. I didn’t believe in curses. Or, for that matter, ghosts.

~~~

If you were of a superstitious turn of mind, you might claim Sholto’s life had been devastated – twice – by the MacNab curse, but he himself had managed to cheat death at the South Pole and death in the desert. He’d been bitten by poisonous snakes and mauled by a grizzly bear. (“Not badly,” he’d said with an airy wave of his hand, as if his insane tendency to put himself in harm’s way was behaviour typical of a Highland laird.) Frostbite, starvation, dehydration and life-threatening injury had been Sholto’s constant companions during a lifetime of global adventure. Another was a family snapshot – torn, creased and stained with something that might have been blood. The photograph showed his late, long-suffering wife, Liz with their two sons: Alexander and Fergus.

A radiant Liz looks down at her younger son, the infant Fergus, who smiles charmingly, if somewhat gummily for the camera. In the background, half obscured and seemingly unaware of the camera, Alexander scowls and brandishes a plastic sword at an invisible enemy.

I never met Liz. I wish I had. Even in an old photograph she looks the sort of woman you’d like to have as a best friend. Kind. Understanding. Forgiving. (With Sholto for a husband, she’d have needed those qualities.) But Liz died many years ago, not long after that battered snapshot was taken. It was very hard on the children, but it was especially traumatic for Alexander – only eight when the accident happened – because the poor boy grew up believing it had been his fault.

~~~

"I would not kill my enemies, but I will
make them get down on their knees.
I will, I can, I must."
Maria Callas, opera singer
(1923 - 1977)

Sholto MacNab didn’t advertise. He approached the Society of Authors and asked if they could refer him to a discreet ghostwriter who’d be prepared to come and live en famille in a draughty Highland castle with primitive plumbing. (He was frank about that at least. There were other things I had to find out for myself.) Sholto had said he didn’t want a biographer as he wished to take credit for the book and all the profits from its sale. He was equally clear he didn’t want a woman. His life story was testosterone-fuelled and some of his anecdotes were distinctly off-colour. There were rumours of the castle being haunted, so Sholto had told the SOA he didn’t want some neurotic woman having hysterics, or worse, ghost-hunting in her spare time as part of her research for a gothic romance.

Nowadays I’m careful to conceal my gender in the professional sphere. Readers and editors are inclined to jump to conclusions about content and style, so I write as “J. J. Ryan”. Until they meet me, everyone assumes I’m a man, even though my CV includes “autobiographies” of both male and female celebrities and I’ve been careful to cover a wide spectrum, from fashion to the Foreign Office.

The profile the SOA had on record indicated that I was interested in writing about travel and extreme sport. I’d ghost-written a popular memoir for a busy scientist who didn’t believe in God, curses or things that went bump in the night. Sholto concluded therefore that J. J. Ryan was sceptical, adventurous and male. He was right about two out of three.

We didn’t communicate by phone. To begin with, the SOA put us in touch and I was thrilled to receive a letter of inquiry from the laird of Cauldstane Castle, Sholto MacNab, adventurer and eccentric. As he loathed computers (Sholto tended to dismiss anything at which he was not expert), we communicated by fax. Shortly before I set off for the Highlands, I received an email from Fergus, Sholto’s younger son. Replying to his questions about travel arrangements, I signed off as I always did for professional purposes: “J. J. Ryan”.

When I alighted from the sleeper in Inverness, I found Fergus MacNab waiting at the barrier with a sheet of paper saying RYAN in large letters. I approached, smiling, delighted by the sharp northern air, the sunshine and the swooping gulls. I was in holiday humour. Everything had gone well so far. Even the sleeper was on time.

As I approached, Fergus smiled back. I’d done my homework and knew him to be thirty-eight (my junior by a few years) and single. I knew he’d been educated at Gordonstoun and had studied at the College of Agriculture in Aberdeen. Even at a distance I could see he resembled neither of his parents, but was a throwback to his grandfather, Ninian, who’d been dark, blue-eyed and handsome, but compactly built in a typically Celtic way. However something about his easy and appraising smile suggested Fergus might have inherited his father’s mantle as a ladies’ man.

I deposited my case at his muddy-booted feet and offered my hand. ‘How do you do? I’m Jenny Ryan.’

The smile vanished. He gazed over my shoulder as other passengers approached the barrier and I watched hope fade from his eyes. He looked at me again and said, ‘You’re J. J. Ryan?’

‘Yes, that’s right. Is something wrong?’ I indicated his piece of paper. ‘You appear to be expecting me.’

‘We were expecting a man.’

‘Really? Oh dear. I hope you aren’t too disappointed.’ Fergus was now looking at me as if I presented an enormous problem, one he hoped wouldn’t be his. I began to feel embarrassed and slightly annoyed. ‘Women can write too, you know. Some of us quite well.’

‘Oh, aye, I don’t doubt. I mean, of course you do! I’m sorry, Miss Ryan—’

‘Please call me Jenny. You, I assume, are Fergus MacNab?’

He took my hand and shook it firmly. ‘Aye, that’s right. Sholto sent me to fetch you. I must apologise for my manners, Miss Ryan—’

‘Jenny. Or J.J. if that’s less painful for you.’

‘Och, no, Jenny’s fine! It’s just that we – that is, Sholto was expecting a man. He was definitely wanting a man.’

‘I see. Well, I’m afraid that crucial piece of information wasn’t passed on to me and I suppose the Society of Authors didn’t realise I was female. It’s not a dark secret, it’s just that I don’t like to be pigeonholed as a writer, so for work purposes, I try to disguise my gender. I have to say, people aren’t usually dismayed when they meet me. Sometimes they’re pleasantly surprised.’

Fergus recovered graciously. ‘I’m sure if anyone could turn my father’s chaotic life into a coherent narrative, it would be you, Miss Ryan. I was just anticipating his…’

‘Disappointment?’

Wrath was more the word I had in mind. He’s very anxious to get on with this book. We’re running out of time.’

‘Oh? I hope he’s not unwell?’

‘No, he’s fine, just short of cash. He’s convinced himself these memoirs will become a bestseller. He’s already wondering who’ll play him in the TV series.’

‘I see. So no pressure then.’

He smiled. ‘If you took it on, Jenny, this would be no easy writing assignment, but I can promise you it would be very entertaining.’

‘But you think I’m unlikely to get a rapturous reception at Cauldstane.’

His expression was pained. ‘I’ll break the news to him as gently as I can.’

‘I’m not sure I want to put you to the trouble. Mr MacNab has already paid my expenses so I can just turn round and go home if you think meeting him would be a waste of time. But I insist on a cooked breakfast before I do. Would you care to join me for coffee? You can watch me eat while you decide whether your father can cope with the terrible shock of meeting me.’

I reached for the handle of my case but Fergus got there first. ‘I don’t know what to advise. My father has pretty old-fashioned ideas about working with women. He’s seventy. He can be… unpredictable. And rude. The fact is, he’s always been a law unto himself. And he still is.’

‘I can’t wait to meet him,’ I said, as we set off across the concourse, heading for the station café. ‘I’m sure our encounter will be highly educational – on both sides. But first I need sustenance. ScotRail’s idea of breakfast certainly isn’t mine.’

Fergus held open the door to the café and the blessed aromas of coffee and bacon hit my nostrils, persuading me that the day – and possibly my trip – might yet be salvageable.

~~~

A red kite - often seen hovering
over Cauldstane Castle.

I got the impression my stock rose with Fergus as he watched me demolish the full Scottish breakfast he’d insisted on buying me. I despatched a second cup of coffee, then claimed I was ready for anything, including the wrath of Sholto MacNab.

I followed Fergus out to the station car park where he indicated a muddy Land Rover that had seen better days and many miles. I climbed in, telling myself I didn’t really want this job anyway. Writing the memoirs of a cantankerous old chauvinist who couldn’t spell? And for a niggardly fee too. Who in their right mind would want to spend months doing that?

I was clear it was just curiosity taking me to Cauldstane – that and a desire to show Fergus MacNab I wasn’t intimidated by his illustrious father.

I was quite clear. Until I saw Cauldstane.

~~~

I’d seen pictures of Highland castles of course, but I’d never visited one, let alone one that was still a family home. I think of myself as well-travelled and hard to impress, but Cauldstane impressed me. Entranced me.

If I say, “Think of Disney”, you’ll envisage something colourful and vulgar. But remove the colour from a Disney castle (but not the quirkiness); batter it with centuries of weather, most of it wet; ravage its walls with cannon balls hurled by Cromwell’s army and you might end up with a typical Scottish tower house, sixteenth-century in origin, surviving – only just – into the twenty-first as family home, money pit and national treasure.

Unfortunately Scotland is littered with them in varying states of dilapidation, so they aren’t regarded as national treasures except by their devoted owners and admirers. The National Trust for Scotland maintains the best and Historic Scotland maintains some that are architecturally significant but ruinous. Anything in between depends for its survival on the dedication and funds of the family who are faced with hard choices. They can watch their home decay. They can try to sell up to someone with more cash and less sense, who might care to exploit centuries of history as a picturesque background for wedding photographs. Or the family can invest money they don’t really have and go down the wedding venue/spa hotel/conference centre route themselves. At least that way they get to stay on site, albeit in an attic flat or one of the estate houses.

I knew little about all this then. When I first caught sight of Cauldstane, I didn’t see a building, a way of life in its death throes. Cauldstane stood, heroic, long-suffering, defying all that the centuries had thrown at it. (Wet and dry rot have proved more damaging to many a castle than the depredations of enemy artillery.) I saw an ivy-clad tower, much taller than it was wide, with more windows than I could easily count, the whole topped by conical-roofed turrets and looking, from a distance, like a child’s toy.

As the Land Rover bounced up the tree-lined, pot-holed drive, I noted that the lower half of the castle looked as bleak and four-square as a prison, but as the eye travelled upwards, ornamentation became apparent. Richly carved gargoyles and canon water spouts carried rain-water well away from the walls. Heraldic beasts emerged from the creamy-pink harling that clothed the granite walls. A deep belt of decorative brickwork (known as corbelling) ran all the way around the castle, supporting turrets and spacious upper storeys.

Arriving at the foot of the castle, I discovered it was much larger and more forbidding than I’d expected, but by then, I’d seen enough. I found myself regretting the decision to go through with the interview. This was no failure of nerve. I just knew if I didn’t get this job, I’d be gutted.

As I craned my neck for a better view, I told myself the secret of a happy life was low expectations. I would simply regard my trip as an interesting excursion. A chance to meet a celebrity and spend a night in a Highland castle before catching the train back to London.

~~~

Fergus drove round the castle, past the main entrance and through a stone arch at the rear. As he swung into the courtyard, I saw from the corner of my eye a figure move rapidly across the cobbles, waving something in the air. As Fergus manoeuvred into a parking place, I turned my head to see a man spring across the courtyard, wielding some sort of sword, cutting the air and thrusting at an invisible opponent. He was dressed in a blue boiler suit, wore plastic safety glasses on top of his head and appeared completely oblivious of our arrival.

I was so surprised by this incongruous sight, I nearly burst out laughing. Then I realised I’d stopped breathing. Mesmerized by the swordsman’s grace and the ballet of this duel with an imaginary foe, I stared through the windscreen, following every move. As Fergus switched off the ignition, the man delivered what appeared to be a coup de grâce at full stretch. Then he straightened up, turned and saluted us, holding his sword in front of his face, aligned with his nose. Fergus tooted the horn in response, but the man was already striding towards one of the outbuildings, slicing the air with his sword, cutting to left and right. Somehow he managed to make the action look casual. He disappeared through a wooden door and it slammed shut.

I swivelled round in my seat and faced Fergus. ‘What was that?’

‘He was trying out a new weapon. He finished it this morning. It was a commission for an American who wanted a replica of the rapier they used in The Princess Bride.’ I blinked in astonishment. Fergus misunderstood and added, ‘It’s a kids’ movie.’

‘You make weapons at Cauldstane?’

‘Aye.’ He pointed. ‘In that workshop. It used to be the stables, but we haven’t had horses for years, so the building’s been re-cycled. We call it the armoury now.’

‘And who was he? The swordsman. He really looked as if he knew what he was doing.’

‘Aye, he does. That was my brother. The heir to Cauldstane. Alexander John Balliol MacNab. We call him Alec.’

~~~