I never thought I’d hear the phrase “yes, the milkman should be coming Tuesday” used in normal conversation. And I certainly never imagined hearing the words “oh, I think I may have left them in the castle” spoken in sincerity. But, then again, I never thought I’d get to spend over two weeks in the Scottish Highlands.
I met Kat during a tour of Western Australia. She was short, Scottish and hilarious. We got along instantly. Though we had discussed Andrew and I visiting her in Scotland, we never actually ironed out the details. I was under the impression she lived in the city of Aberdeen, where we could stay with her for 3 to 4 nights tops. “Well, I was actually hoping you guys could stay for a couple weeks,” Kat told me over the phone. “Yeah, I live with my parents in Braemar, a small village in the Highlands. Oh, and I think I’ve gotten you two some work at the local pub.” Kat explained further. I was stunned. Multiple-week stay? Pub work? The potential to reenact Braveheart? It all seemed too perfect.
By the time we arrived in the UK, I was used to the trials and tribulations of international travel. Australia had made me accustomed to problems, which I expected on a daily basis – almost to the point of becoming suspicious when nothing went wrong. So it’s not that I didn’t believe Kat, but I didn’t.
Andrew and I arrived late one night in early September. With our full backpacks, we stepped out of an empty bus onto a dimly lit cobblestone street. Kat, who met up with us in Aberdeen, led us up a small hill to a cottage on the edge of the village. A sign outside the stone house read “Birchwood.” Inside we met Kat’s parents, Andy and Sheila Anderson. They greeted us as if we were their long-lost prodigal children and insisted we sit down for sandwiches and lentil soup, even though we had already eaten.
After supper, the Andersons showed us to our separate upstairs quarters. Each was complete with a comfy bed, thick blankets and sinks with separate hot and cold water faucets. I found Andrew that night wandering the halls, also in shock with our undeserved good fortune. “I bet we’ll find a body in one of these closets,” he whispered. I, too, had the feeling that we had been lured into something. At the very least, they had to be religious fanatics. Yes, that was it. Andrew and I were their cult’s hope to bring new seed into a bottlenecking gene pool. Being the larger physical specimen, Andrew would certainly be the first to get raped. His girlish screams would alert me in the night, giving me time to slip out the window and flee to the highlands. Comforted by my plan and chalking Andrew up as a loss, I went to sleep.
The next morning we discovered Birchwood used to be a bed and breakfast, which the Andersons had stopped running just a few years before. So, as it turns out, their stellar hospitality wasn’t part of an elaborate plot to kill, eat or take sexual advantage of us. Sheila and Andy were just really nice people, who were accustomed to treating their guests like, well, paying customers. Except Andrew and I weren’t paying customers, we were freeloading bastards.
Every morning there I would wake up well rested, before making my way to the window. Yawning and stretching, I’d draw back the curtains and let light pour into the room, exposing views of roundtop mountains covered in green grass and purple heather.
After putting on pants, I’d wander downstairs to the breakfast table to find our places set with elegance and care. At the center of the table, there would be a spread of granola, yogurt, bread, butter, jam, fruits and decorative jugs containing fresh milk and orange juice. Compared to my house back in Texas, where granola only comes in bar form and napkins are reserved solely for special occasions, this was lavish.
“Good morning Eric,” A cheery voice would say. Sheila would then round the corner with an empty tea glass. “Did you sleep alright?” she’d ask. “Oh, yes ma’am, thank you.” I’d respond. “Is Andrew having a lie-in this morning?” Sheila would inquire further. “Well, I haven’t seen him emerge yet.” I’d answer with a mouth half-filled with toast. “Oh, make sure when he comes down you let him know there’s more pomegranate juice in the fridge.” She’d say before disappearing out the door. Five minutes later, I’d hear the distinct sound of large, bare feet advancing on a wooden floor. Andrew would enter the kitchen and ease into his chair. I’d watch him begin methodically organizing his breakfast. Eventually, Andrew would look up at me with sleepy eyes and a compact, but deeply satisfied smile. Then he’d cram an entire piece of toast in his mouth and I’d go back to reading the paper. That was how our mornings in Scotland began.
After a few days of this treatment, we made it our mission to repay them through chores. We came up with a list: vacuuming, tidying the separate guesthouse, tending to the garden, chopping wood, sheep hunting, etc. I even offered to clean the local castle (with one of those fancy feather dusters I’d assume) where Sheila worked. They claimed they didn’t want us to lift a finger, but it’s possible they knew we’d cause more harm than good. Either way, even offering to do the simplest of tasks like cleaning the dishes was met with a “don’t be ridiculous” type of response. I recall after one delicious meal of freshly caught salmon, we were even told to stop thanking them.
Though I embraced the luxury of our situation, my subconscious could never quite come to terms with it. Every morning I still half expected to wake up on a stained mattress in a shitty hostel surrounded by a collection of random men. Those mornings were, indeed, yet to come. But, for the time being, every day I woke up to more comforts and hospitality than seemed possible.
Now, make no mistake, our time in Breamar wasn’t just one big slumber party. Kat, Andrew and I had many adventures and lively times involving camping, backpacking, bagpipes, whiskey, a royal hunting party and the Queen. And those tales are soon to come. But, my point is, if we wished to spend each day filling the time between meals by reading, napping and farting on nice furniture, we could have. A few times we did. It was strange how everything worked out and so little went wrong. Honestly, I believe the worst news we heard during that entire two-week span was “I’m afraid all there is for pudding tonight is raspberries and cream… I’m terribly sorry.”
Reviewed and edited by Katie Chassaing