The driver wasn’t sure of his bearings, and neither was I. All I knew was that the town hotels were full, and my old favourite The Udny Arms in Newburgh was booked out, too. I’d been consigned to a far corner of Aberdeenshire to stay the night.
We pulled up onto the gravel drive, and I fell out of the taxi, suddenly rueing that last farewell port consumed in sumptuous Hazlehead, half an hour ago. I shook my head through the still night air, unpeeled an alarmingly thick roll of Scottish twenties, and headed inside.
The massive gothic oak door creaked open into an ancient hallway, long and chill. High vaulted ceiling, grandfather clock, ceremonial swords fixed to the walls. Somewhere nearby would surely hide a hunting rifle and the head of some unfortunate stag, I thought, as those famous words from Simon Callow sounded to me from somewhere long ago and far away: “It’s bloody Brigadoon !”
‘Good e-v-e-ning,’ said the voice, and I jumped straight out of that film scene. There at the desk sat a thin-faced young man, with collar-length black hair and pasty skin. A smile which seemed oddly extravagant, at this time of night.
‘I, I, er…, I phoned ahead to say I’d be late,’ I stammered. He nodded silently, and pushed a form towards me, to be filled out now in a strangely shaky hand.
‘Shall I show you your r-o-o-m,’ he offered, politely. What was that darkly suppressed accent ? Eastern European, I thought. And as we started to climb the stairs, a shocking image of a smile flashed in front of my eyes.
There was something strange about that face. What was it ?
Those white front teeth. Now I thought about it, they really were unusually long.
Just then he stopped for a moment, so I grabbed the room key and rushed inside. I turned, smiled as calmly as I could, and hurriedly closed the door, bolting it firmly shut behind me. And that was the last thing that I remember.
* * * *
Six scant short hours later, the early summer sun is streaming behind the curtains. The room is enormous. Looking out of the window over lush green lawns and gigantic trees to gentle hills beyond, it’s finally clear.
I slept soundly last night, in the tower of a castle.
The day is calling, so I kit up quickly, slug a pint of water, and roll down the stairs. No Dracula on the door now, just a pale Scots lass with a winsome smile. No teeth marks lower down, either, as far as I can see.
A minute passes as I gaze quietly at the castle, across the gardens and up to the slopes of Bennachie, rising high above the heather. And then I set off down the driveway.
Deserted blacktop, dappled sunlight through the rhododendrons, fresh spring air. Downhill. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
The road snakes gently ahead, meandering towards rolling green fields, with velvet outlines of gorse shining in the sunlight.
At the junction, I turn right, to face tall trees, fresh leaves, a big blue sky. Bennachie on my shoulder.
I run a little further than I should, but nowhere nearly far enough.
And then I turn, and yes, it’s uphill all the way home. Hard, thirsty work, this early, but the climb is smooth and steady as I pace myself along the rhododendron drive. Perhaps that’s how it should be, since now my legs find the rhythm to glide me to the top.
I realise it then, that if only every run were like this one, then surely I would never need to run again. Truly, it’s the scarcity of perfection which keeps me coming back to find it. And here it is, in the slowly rising silence of a sunny Scottish morning.
The rhododendrons part to end my reverie – four miles are behind me. My day ahead now begins with a stroll to the walled garden – a wonderful Beatrix Potter tableau, transported northwards across the border, complete with a Mr MacGregor greenhouse and watering can. A sign saying ‘Please don’t let the rabbits in.’
Fifteen more minutes go by amongst azaleas, stunning topiary and spectacular shrubs. A backdrop of sunshine, stretching far beyond the garden, across the green fields and gorse of Aberdeenshire to Bennachie, always there behind.
Long before my hot Scottish breakfast, I’m already sure. There’s a half hour journey to Aberdeen ahead this morning, but a taxi ride down to Union Street is a small price to pay to start the day like this.
The city hotels can stay as full as they want, next time. I’ll stay here at Pittodrie House again, one day.
And that moment might still be waiting for me. Perfection always hiding, and yet for ever here to find.