“Eeeeeeeeeeooooowwwww. How did you discover that the floor was sticky?”.
“Well… I walked over it and my shoes stuck.”
Ah yes of course. Silly question. Not the bathroom experience you want on the first night of your holiday, nor the best of starts for our St Cuthbert’s Way, planned for 2020 and now happening at last. The full length of it stretched before us and there were hills not ten minutes out of town which were going to ask a lot of me tomorrow morning. So I wanted to be comfortable tonight, some good kip and a solid breakfast to set me up for prolonged exertion. Unfortunately, prolonged exertion seemed to be what was happening in the room next door to mine. Oh lor. A night can last a really long time…
And it had—has—already been a really long time: a long time since I planned a Thing, went on holiday, left Cumbria for more than a night, went on a train, sat down at these pages… As the Pendolino slid out of Oxenholme and pointed its smooth nose towards Edinburgh I realised that here I was—here I actually was, getting on a train, going on holiday: things which for such a long time had seemed lost and unimaginable. I felt the kind of joyful, wonder-ing delight which has huge retrospective grief in it.
The so-familiar landscapes shifted past the window: Sweetheart Wood, Shap, Penrith and Carlisle and Beattock (with its comedy woodland which has entertained me as I’ve driven past over the last 30-odd years). And suddenly I was being ambushed by all sorts of memories: of those last, ghastly journeys when I went to see Mum during her hideously-protracted dying; the decades of visiting Dad as he declined and Mum struggled with caring; and then her grief; and the too-brief stretch of time between “carer” and “cared-for”. So many variants of horror, frustration and the anguish of un-screamed screams… As I sat there I also realised that my long absence from these pages was about more than just the fact that Things weren’t happening (though obviously they weren’t, during lockdown). No: it was also about the fact that Mum won’t be reading the posts and how that, somehow, makes her really gone.* Now my second parent has died there’s no-one left who’s obliged to be interested in me. And yes, I know that “obligation”‘s not really the issue, and that you’re fortunate if you’ve had that at all, and I should count my blessings and blah blah blah… Whatever. I feel a new kind of alone in the world, and that is just how it is. Not to mention the fact that loss in a pandemic has left a lot of us, I think, with experiences which simply haven’t been processed in any kind of “normal” way. Like a shark barrelling up from the deep all this stuff just arrives and grips me. Nothing to do but feel it.
With the release of doing so, however, came a sudden desire for coffee. Even as I thought this I registered an ongoing intercom Complaynt transmitted by the Catering Manager who was having to Cater without a functioning buffet car or Onboard Café or whatever the hell they’re called these days. Such was the restrained desperation in his voice that you immediately felt sorry for him. He invited us to scan the thingummybob on the seat back in front of us, access the menu and order through the app. Now, Jenny doesn’t have a smartphone and mine won’t scan anything, so Jenny went to where he’d holed up at the back of the train to see if anything she could offer him might be swapped for drinks. She returned surprisingly quickly with what turned out to be Secret Coffee: the poor bloke wasn’t allowed to sell anything not ordered through the app (I mean, what? why?) but had given her some, perhaps in order to get rid of her. Bless him. It came with instructions not to tell anyone he’d done so, presumably lest he be stampeded. It also came in cups decorated with the words “Change, please!”; ready for the end-user on the pavement. How bizarre.
Waverley offered more reminders of not-yet-processed grief and also of the strange phenomenon we’d been talking about on the train: hyperbole culture. No book these days, Jenny had pointed out, is ever just a “pleasant” read, or a TV programme quietly entertaining. Everything is always profoundly moving/invigorating/”inspirational” (how is that different from inspiring??)/hilarious/life-changing or whatever. Thus the seat back sign had invited us to “feast our eyes” on the on-board entertainment menu. Thus, too, our sandwiches were extraordinarily delicious, mouth-watering and deeply satisfying; they occupied the time before our on-boarding on the 1.35 for Tweedbank.
There must be some sort of law which states that the degree of penetration of any given passenger’s voice is in inverse relationship to the degree of interestingness of what they have to say (this same law applies in cafes too, I’ve found). As well as resisting the hypnotic quality of that conversation, Jenny and I had also to fit our own modest exchanges in between the prose poems offered by the Train Manager and automatic-station-announcer-lady who between them left very little airtime unoccupied. The train trundled through pleasantly green undulating countryside, where the grass was lush under the light grey skies, the trees were coming into their fulness, and the lambs were chunked up and stolid. Still, the train was airless and noisy, and we were glad to get off.
Challenge one of our journey: getting from Tweedbank to Melrose. There was a bus, allegedly. Leaving the station, we towed our cases—as we noted, this was more the sound of airport despair than intrepid pilgrimaging—and stood hopefully at a bus stop. It didn’t come. Jenny turned on her GPD mile-counting thingie preparatory to walking. The bus loomed beyond the roundabout. Jenny turned her thing off again. We stood up straighter. The bus turned off into the station. It reappeared. It went right back round the roundabout and disappeared whence it came. Jenny turned her machine back on again as we discussed whether the cycle path might go all the way to Melrose. Another bus hove into view. It went into the station…. It emerged… and it came towards us! Joy! Jenny turned her machine off, and we got on board. The ticket machine was broken and another quietly despairing transport operative nodded wearily at us just to get on. We drove past cherries in blossom and red sandstone iterations of that delightful Scottish vernacular, the stepped gable house. Round a trim hospital, past a golf course, a co-op and the largest podiatry clinic I have ever seen. Whatever happens in Melrose, it clearly takes it out of your feet.
We de-bussed (when in Rome) at the top of Buccleugh Street and found our way to our hotel, the George and Abbotsford. An extremely friendly, up-for-the-crack member of staff booked us in, issuing our room keys and a copy of the restaurant menu. It felt like a bad sign, though, that the deepish pile, patterned carpet stopped at the first bend in the stairs and a plain, balder one took over. Much of the woodwork was scuffed and dirty, though admittedly it didn’t look as though the place had been subject to a police raid within the last week or so. Limp curtains hung disconsolate at windows which didn’t respond to attempts at manipulation. My bed had a grimy base; the refreshments tray had the last occupant’s crumbs waiting beneath its edge; and the “ensuite” shower and loo were ok if you didn’t mind washing in a phone box and shitting in a wardrobe. It wasn’t quite an Arncliffe Arms situation** but it was close. At the delightful Apples for Jam café, where we enjoyed a pistachio doughnut and vanilla cruffin (=muffin/croissant hybrid), we tacitly agreed not to expatiate while still consulting on ways to negotiate the bathroom floor. We decided that standing on the bathmat while adopting a sort of sub-Geisha micro-shuffle might avoid the worst adhesion.
Despite the G&A, though, I was already falling in love with Melrose. It felt just the right size; was full of elegant but unintimidating houses in the gorgeous local stone; had snickets and nooks and a lot of independent shops, selling not just Tourist Thingies but actual stuff that residents might need, like vegetables and cheese. It had a river, and hills, this wonderful café and two delightful National Trust gardens within minutes’ walk of the centre. The Priorwood Garden had a semi-formal area, with flowers massed in beds, as well as a wooded area where bluebells, garlic and birdsong gave a delightful woodland-in-miniature experience, and an open grassed section with many interesting varieties of fruit. Espaliered trees spread their arms across red brick walls; a group of teenagers sat chatting at one of the weathered wooden tables; a woman on her own was relaxedly reading a paper on a bench. Free to enter and a delight to be in, the gardens were rightly a source of quiet pride for the friendly National Trust Gardener with whom we spoke. He directed us to the more formal Harmony Gardens, where a 100-year old bulb lawn was just coming to the end of this year’s blooms but still had a faded glory about it. New beech leaves whispered overhead, and a lovely house presided over the quiet space. I was starting to feel that Melrose might be the place to flee to when England becomes finally untenable (in a couple of months’ time maybe). There may be no escape from Mansplaining, though, and a question to a group of fellow-garden wanderers as to the name of a flower elicited not just the answer but also the handy information that “there is more than one kind of flower here” and the breakthrough idea that we “could look them up on the Internet”.
We followed a riverside path and spent a lovely quarter of an hour or so sitting by a mirror-smooth stretch of the Tweed watching the most extraordinary display of vertical fish leaping that I’ve every seen (like, several inches between fish and surface!). Then, after supper (not in the G&A), we retired to our rooms. I lay there in the semi-dark, realising that this was the kind of bed so marshy in texture that you have to hold yourself on. Eventually I resorted to folding one pillow and wedging it under my side so as to avoid falling out of bed whenever I moved. The pillows themselves managed to be both flabby and thin, and I had to use all of them plus the rolled-up towels in order to get sufficient support for my head and neck. Bits of the vertical blinds came off in my hands as I tried to shut out the light blaring in from the streetlamp opposite.
But nothing I could do by way of micro-adjustments could change what was going on next door. There was a to-and-fro creaking which sounded like the noise of someone unpacking, walking to and from the bathroom or something; but which went on for over four hours. The noise was so loud I couldn’t hear the Calm app with which I tried to soothe myself. After about two hours I went upstairs in a kind of fever of exhaustion and desperation—I’m not sure quite what I thought I was going to do when I got there—but learned only that the noise was not coming from above. I paused outside Room One and could clearly hear the restless pacing which had been evident from inside my room. What I also heard was the most bizarre noise, a sort of continuous combined snuffle-sob-pant-snort-whimper which I couldn’t interpret beyond saying that it bespoke great distress. Was someone doing a Trainspotting-style detox in there? Locked in a series of PTSD flashbacks? When I knocked gently on the door the noise stopped—I had a sense of a trapped animal freezing—and I was back in bed and just starting to relax when the noise started up again. It went on and on and on. As well as being annoyed and desperate I was concerned about what might actually be happening in there, but when I phoned the hotel’s emergency number (“Reception is not manned but someone is on call all night”) it went straight to voicemail. Twice. I could only entertain myself by planning my own Melrose Complaynt—or, as Jenny put it the next day, “All we could do was put up with it and look forward to leaving”. Breakfast was a risible affair with no spoons, flasks of lukewarm institution tea and “coffee”, and toast which was either moistly flaccid or brittle and burnt. I have no doubt that any individual staff member was doing his, her or their best; but still, I kept expecting one of the guests to voice the fact that the emperor had no clothes—some kind of collective revolt in which we’d all Strike the board and cry, No more! That never happened. But I did do a fair bit of board-striking when invited by the Receptionist to give feedback on my stay.
What a relief to get out. We waited for delightful take-out bagels from Apples for Jam, enjoying a coffee and (in my case) looking apprehensively at the Eildons looming blackly above the town. Did I mention that I was doing the most prolonged exercise I’d done for four years in company with someone who does Ultras and who can knock off upwards of thirty miles a day? I had no idea how that was going to play out but I did know it was time to begin. We walked to Melrose Abbey where the route starts (we’d been too late to go in yesterday, and were now too early, which was to become rather a motif of the pilgrimage). At last, we were off.
*See St Hilda’s Way.
**For a cool, quietly lovely vision of how we might think of our dead, see here.