The taxi driver was in the army. Eighteen years in the army. He tells me about some of the places he went to, some of the things he saw. I decide not to moan about my leaking shoes. When I mention the rain, he recalls the sound Afghan raindrops make on the roof of a British Army tent. I try to steer the conversation away from Helmand and towards the Highlands, but the driver is not for turning. “I lost my best mate out there. Blown to bits. That’ll be £7.60 please.” It’s an unconventional sign-off, I’ll give him that much.
At the hotel reception, there is a queue. Leading it is an American lady in a hotel-issue dressing gown. “Is my shower supposed to be cold, is that, like, a Scottish thing?” she asks the Spanish man behind the desk. He telephones someone called Stevie and says “the water has gone again”. I check in and squelch to my room. There is no milk for my cup of tea. I phone reception and get the Spaniard. “My apologies, sir. I’ll get Stevie to bring you some.” Stevie never materialises. He has a lot on, I decide, and head out.
Strathpeffer has a calm beauty. It is solidly, reassuringly Victorian, all titan houses with frilly doorways fit for parasols and bulky skirts. Gardens are roomy, many with monkey puzzle trees, lush souvenirs of Victoriana. Decorative iron streetlamps line the main road, a dainty sentry guard. The Grand Spa Pavilion entices my eyes, suddenly the only girl in the room. Its crescent window is like a sad eye offering you a look into another time, but there is nothing morose about the place. It is a work of art, on the one hand evocatively Rule Britannia, on the other like a New England town hall. White and wooden, it is a portal taking the viewer somewhere pleasing. Here once tourists danced, here once locals fell in love. It was a place of learning and fiery oratory too: the walls whisper of the night Emmeline Pankhurst dropped in, of George Bernard Shaw holding court.
Strathpeffer’s setting adds to the feeling of being in another place, in another time. It sits beneath hills, onto which are lodged houses and hotels in cream and stone. It means a content feeling of being cut off from the rest of time and the world, hidden away, ghosting around. The wild west wooden shops are set back from the road and I feel cheated that they don’t have a balcony and a lone rocking chair swaying in the wind.
Inside the mini-market, a lazy store cat refuses to move away from the crisps section. Not even an ear flickers as I climb over it. Two women in their thirties are talking about a mutual acquaintance. “She gives me the boak, that woman. Ties my stomach in knots when she speaks.” The store noticeboard advertises a Snail Race.
Back outside the shop, a boy in that purgatory cusp between happy boyhood and intense teenagedom is on his bike. He is not riding anywhere, just circling, occasionally performing a wheelie. Growing up somewhere like this gives you a permanent sense of waiting for something, even if you never quite know what. In my village, it was waiting to leave. A dog tied to a lamppost looks on, an indifferent audience. It feels like both of them wish they had been raised not here but beneath the bright lights of Dingwall.
I walk down to the old railway station, last train departed 1946. Its autumn-red wooden plank walls have been kept exquisite, shops and things to look at or eat sold from within. The platform is intact too, but look down for tracks and all you see is long grass; listen out for steam rising and all you hear is a waterfall and happy birds. Occasionally railway station aromas waft by, scented ghosts hanging in the air – nothing specific, just tar or mucky steam water. It’s all nice enough, this Little House on the Prairie end of the line, but a shame. Why not trains fizzing here from Inverness, bringing us to this glad timewarp of a town? Screw the sums and the feasibility studies. Give us life and railways.
Back by the shops, the bike boy is still prowling. My bus to Inverness pulls up 15 minutes late. The driver doesn’t take a fare, instead ushering me on. I am the only passenger and he turns up the radio during a news story about a murder in rural Scotland. I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing when we stop to pick up a school-age lad. Another couple of kids get on elsewhere, one carrying a trumpet. At least we can use it to bludgeon the murderous driver, I think. Somehow we arrive at Inverness unscathed. “Is this bus always free?” I ask trumpet boy. “Aye, it’s the school bus mate.” The driver gives me a friendly goodbye.