The welcome completed
The Scottish Tourist Board led me astray, I thought, as the coal fire smouldered and filled the room with damp smoke.Skip to next paragraph
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I stood facing a hole in the dingy green plaster, one hand groping for a bucket, the other dusting black cobwebs away from the wall. A bare lightbulb cast a circle of light on the floor.
Outside, a gale from the North Sea crashed across the countryside. The wind died down, and then rose again, surging like a plundering army through the surrounding stone barns.
No, I concluded, the Tourist Board never photographs places like this. I leaned my shoulder against the wall for a moment, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. Through the break in the plaster, I could see the outside stone wall of the cottage. There wasn't one shred of insulation.
I tried to remember the color photographs of Scotland that I'd looked at before I'd left Boston. I remembered the bagpipers, the castles, and the impeccable townhouses of Edinburgh. I remembered the heather and the manicured fairways of the St. Andrews ''Old Course.'' There were no pictures of abandoned 18th-century farm cottages. There was no dirt, or damp, or frost. There were no pictures of cold, unfurnished sitting rooms congested with coal smoke.
I stood back from the wall and leveled off the wet plaster with the lid of a cardboard box. Then I picked up my bucket of plaster and started clearing the cobwebs away from another hole.
For two long weeks, I'd been doing this. It wasn't the Scottish lark I'd imagined in my dreams. The voice of futility urged me to quit and book a flight on the first plane to New York. As I dipped my trowel into the bucket, I began to wonder. I whimsically thought of the leisurely life that I'd led in America. I could see myself browsing through bookstores, or, perhaps, sitting at home writing long, newsy letters -- content, relaxed, untroubled by the weather.
But it was no good. I'd fallen in love with the hard life of a Scottish estate. I slept in an unheated bedroom, and I periodically went without indoor plumbing. But the bedroom looked out across miles of fertile farmland, and the plumbing -- when working -- drew water from an underground stream.
A knock at the door brought me out of my reverie. I went to the stairwell, switched on a light, and pulled open the front door. The wind howled and drops of rain fell across the threshold. The corrugated tin roof of a nearby stone shed buckled and then rattled.
''Ah, good evening, Mr. Carnegie.''
A mountain of a man filled the doorway. He was known as the grieve, the Scottish name for a bailiff. He managed all the farmland on the estate, and cattle were the central passion of his life. He stood between me and the bleak night, resembling a massive prize bull. Slowly, he leaned forward on his cane and scowled.
My mind went back to those Scottish tourist books: a well-maintained cottage with a clean, cobbled walkway flanked by rows of bright flowers. A young mother stands at the door, holding a rosy-cheeked baby. She is smiling, the farmer is laughing, and the day is warm and sunny.
''Would you like to come in?'' I asked, as a sharp wind shot through me.
Mr. Carnegie, after a long pause, frowned and cocked his head. ''I don't like Americans,'' he said. There was a note of finality in his voice.
''Ah, well,'' I babbled. ''I'm sorry to hear that.''
''And I don't like students, either,'' he added. Surely he knew that I was attending the University of St. Andrews.
''Ah, yes, well, I can understand that. . . .''
''They're nae but a pack o' trouble, young man.''
I hardly knew what to say. I stood in front of my opponent in a weakened condition. My old ragged sweater was spotted with dabs of plaster. My face and my hands were blackened with coal dust and soot. I hadn't had a bath for two days, and my spirits were, to say the least, low.
''And as for you,'' he began again, ''You're a --- nuisance.'' He waited a few minutes for his words to sink in. Just then, a steady rain started falling through the doorway.
''But you're no' a bad lad, ye know,'' he grunted, thrusting a brown paper parcel into my hands. ''Just a bit o' butter frae the byre.'' He grinned and stumped away into the rain.
Quietly, I opened the parcel and tasted the unsalted butter. Ah, yes, I thought, this place is just what the Tourist Board said it would be.