He takes the 77 from the airport. It saves the hassle of claiming the taxi fare back. And flying from Stornoway to Glasgow and back, again, for half an hour of consultation, seems extravagant. If he can save the NHS a few pounds by getting the bus, why not? Anyway, he has some time to kill. None of which is the reason.
The truth is that he likes to sit up top, right at the front, and watch the cityscape unfold: the airport slip roads, the swoosh of motorway over the little river, Renfrew’s careworn tenements and then the expanse of new built ticky-tacky houses all the way to Braehead shopping mall. The retail complex contrives to feel box fresh and yet already obsolescent, its pandemic scattered customers reluctant to return. The vast car parks are still almost as empty as its soul.
Barely out of Braehead and The Queen Elizabeth appears. It dwarfs the surrounding buildings like one of those huge cruise ships that have to anchor out beyond the lighthouse, too enormous for the harbour. But this thing is not ship-shaped; it is a multi-coloured, four-winged cube, rearing up over low-rise Govan grey.
Neurology isn’t in the giant cube but in one of the older buildings that clutch at its hems; poor supplicant relations of the queen. As Russell walks down to it he passes the block where, last time he was here, they injected him with something mysterious and radioactive, before scanning his brain.
The scanner was a bit bigger than a microwave, white inside like the one he has at home. Head in the box, he had to lie rigid, shoulders and the back of his head held in a sort of plastic mould, while the thing slowly rotated around him in periodic jerks. It was an ordeal because the condition makes his muscles stiff, and stress makes his shoulders tense up to the point of painful. And, it turns out that having your brain microwaved is stressful. At least he had thought to ask the nurse for music.
‘Sure,’ she had said. ‘What do you like?’
‘Van Morrison.’ What else would he ask for? The sound track to his life.
The nurse had never even heard of Van the Man, which made him feel ancient. But the future has its compensations, and she had soon found some on Spotify. On her phone, outside the head-box, it was distant and tinny. The Spotify selection wasn’t great, either. But it let him keep track of the time, which was a big improvement from the MRI scan. And they had played, Into the Mystic.
As he passes the brain scan building he remembers an old Biff cartoon that had amused him in the eighties. In a care home a nurse helps a frail old man out of his chair saying, ‘come on Ben, time for your Van Morrison.’ He had joked that that would be him in old age. Well, he wasn’t in a home yet, he wasn’t really even old – but he had been in hospital with a brisk young nurse administering his Van Morrison. He really must get that funeral playlist sorted.
The sleek neurologist explains that the DAT scan has confirmed the diagnosis. He is very good at this, Russell thinks, but what a thing to get so good at. How many people a week does he give this sort of news to? Dr Chaudrey does not do euphemisms, which is a big relief. But nor does he use words like ‘degenerative’ or ‘incurable.’ Of course, he doesn’t need to in the time of Google and they hover round the conversation anyway, haunting the still air of the consulting room.
‘What were you hoping to hear?’ Dr Chaudrey had asked on his first day trip to Neurology.
‘That it’s just a touch of the marthambles, easily cured by drinking slightly more wine.’
The consultant had not laughed. OK, it wasn’t a great joke but Russell wondered if anything could have cracked him. He is so guarded, poised but on the lookout for hysteria or despair, careful not to contribute to either. It is the right approach, thinks Russell. Christ knows he couldn’t cope with sympathy. But it is a bit annoying too, being managed by such a smooth, young, expert operator. Hey! He wants to say, I’m degenerating here! And I was pretty damn disorganised to start with. Do you have to be quite so deft and competent? The guy could wear a fraying cardigan or keep losing his glasses or something.
It isn’t the marthambles, the brain scan has confirmed. Slightly more wine is not going fix it.
He has a window seat again on the evening flight back. There is a patchwork of cloud, obscuring the land one minute, and then clearing the next. Russell tries to work out where they are, as always. The cloud relents revealing a river with flamboyant meanders. Could that be the Pendicles of Collymoon? He wonders, absurdly excited. He loves the Pendicles of Collymoon, just for the name. But there is no sign of the Lake of Menteith so it can’t be. And now he can see that they are above Loch Lomond.
The cloud comes back to veil the Rannoch Moor and he is distracted by a stewardess dispensing tea and Tunnock’s wafers. When he looks back a big gap has opened up and, after a second, he realises that he is looking down at Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg, completely clear of cloud. In one glance he can see the whole route that he took that day in 1992.
He had woken, packed and hidden his bivvy bag, and set off just after dawn; so early that he had the Tourist Path all to himself, even though it was a breezeless, blue sky day and May bank holiday weekend. At the half way lochan he had left the main route, following a rough track down into Coire Leis, round almost to the CIC hut, squatting below the rock cliffs of The Ben’s north face. The ascent of Carn Mor Dearg had been absolutely brutal; steep grass then scree slopes at an unrelenting, leg-muscle-murdering angle. But he had made it to the elegant peak at last.
He was alone on Carn Mor Dearg. The hard part of the day was over, physically. But the knife edge ridge of the arête curved gently round to Ben Nevis in front of him. The scary part of the day had not even begun.
Russell never was good with exposure and the drop on the right of the arête quickly turned terrifying; so sheer that steel abseil posts had been hammered into the rock in places. And the view of the north face of the Ben was awe inspiring; monstrous black cliffs slashed white with vertical, snow-packed, gullies. It had made him feel a little bit sick just looking at it. So he stopped doing so and focussed on the way ahead, which was quite vertiginous enough.
The left side of the arête was less sheer, though still ferociously steep in places, and there were little bits of path beneath the edge, here and there, bypassing some of the most stomach churning bits. And the day was beautiful; the only cloud a fluffy halo veiling the very top of Ben Nevis. This was a worry as it stopped him from seeing how much snow endured, and he was without crampons or ice axe. He picked his way cautious, nervous, exhilarated, scared, along the ridge. Then, sooner than expected, the arête met the shoulder of The Ben and he found himself scrambling up a boulder field.
Quite suddenly, he was on hard packed snow and standing on the top, no longer alone. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of people were stumbling around, exhausted and astonished by the snow and thick mist of that cloud cap. The path was far from clear. Too many feet had compacted a great tranche of summit snow. And the image of those awful cliffs was still stark in his mind. So he had got out his compass and map and taken a bearing.
‘Excuse me, are you going down?’ A worried looking man stood with a boy of about ten. Better gear than most of the summit crowd.
‘Do you mind if we come with you?’
He had followed the bearings and they had followed him and soon they were out of the cloud and off the snow, safely on the tourist path. It had been then that he had realised that he might still have daylight enough to hitch to Glasgow that day – if he ran down the mountain.
The hatchback ignored him and sped off up the glen. Never mind. It looked full anyway. He had been dropped by the mountain rescue station in Glencoe Village. A few cars had gone by, but the traffic was slack and mostly it looked local. That was OK, though. It didn’t matter if he had to bivvi out another night and hitch down tomorrow. Van Morrison on Glasgow Green was not til the day after. Then a battered Transit appeared and he waved his thumb at it. The van pulled up and a wild-haired, wilder-bearded, guy grinned out at him.
‘Where ya headed?’
‘Aye, stick your bag in the back.’
Russell threw his backpack into the tangle of tools and ropes and then got into the front.
‘Sorry about the smell!’ The guy explained that he was a fisherman from Kyle of Lochalsh.
Glencoe was truly glorious. Even that old enemy the Aonach Eagach didn’t look so grim in the golden evening sun. Perhaps he should have another go at it. If he could face the CMD arête, how much worse could it be?
‘Are you going all the way to Glasgow?’
‘Aye! I’m goin’ down to see Van Morrison play at the Fleadh.’
By what magic he could not guess, but somehow it was still daylight as they hurtled down the side of Loch Lomond. Bluebells abounded in the budding oak woods, lit by the last slanting rays of sun. Ben Lomond reflected in the mirror of the loch. The fisherman put Fisherman’s Blues on the cassette. And when the cover of, Sweet Thing came on they both sang along.
They sang along, gloriously out of tune.
Copyright Biff ( Chris Garratt and Mick Kidd.) Reproduced with permission