The new road

FOR many years we headed north each autumn for a brief break before the winter snows came. Mountains rose up around us, the moors stretched out, russet and tawny gold, the heather still gave off a faintly honeyed perfume, mingled with bog myrtle and peat smoke. Whaups called, herds of red deer passed by. Our road grew steadily rougher till it was nothing more than a hill track leading into the Highland village where we always stayed. It was a backwater of tranquillity, untouched by time.

Then, gradually, small changes began to take place. Their chief initiator was the smooth-tongued and unctuous Ogil-vie, keeper of an immaculate and well-stocked General Store. The first television mast to go up in the community was on his chimney-head. He belonged to the same breed as Chekhov's trader, Lopakhin, who was prepared to cut down the Cherry Orchard to make way for a housing estate. Ogilvie was impatient at the slow pace of Highland life; he believed in progress.

We far preferred the other storekeeper, Balfour, whose small shop stood at a turning in the village street. It was a dark, cluttered place. He sold a weird mixture of fishing tackle, shortbread, oilskins, and oatmeal. Balfour was a gentle, scholarly man, an improbable shopkeeper.

We held him in increasing esteem and affection, for his knowledge of history and for the strong streak in him of sardonic and self-deprecating humor.

We spent hours among the piled-up sacks, tea chests, and cobwebs, the last listeners he had for his tales of Highland history and local legend. Since the greater part of his customers had been lured away by the progressive Ogilvie, he sat most of the day on a stool behind the counter, reading old chronicles or writing letters to the MP or to the Highlands and Islands Board.

We sometimes went to community meetings held in the gray-tiled school. They were marked by the animosity between those two men. Ogilvie had endless schemes to attract tourists, to create walkways and craft centers. ``We need a new school,'' he said. ``Above all we must have a new road.''

Balfour stumbled to his feet. ``A new road!'' he exclaimed. The word took on a dimension of doom and disaster. ``We would lose all our quiet,'' he said. ``Our Highland inheritance would go.''

In sessions with us he was a sorcerer, casting a spell of words. As a public speaker he fumbled, strayed from the point, dropped papers -- ``Where did I lay that letter from the MP? I had it a minute ago'' -- wandering off into abstractions and digressions. The villagers shuffled uneasily, trying not to laugh. Ogilvie smiled like a fox licking its chops on a freshly filched goose. The surest way to destroy an adversary is by the weapon of ridicule and Ogilvie used it brilliantly. He imitated an agitated Balfour, hunting for missing letters, ruffling up his tousled hair.

``Balfour would keep us in the Dark Ages,'' he said. ``We must move forward.'' The children drank in Ogilvie's every word; he was much more amusing than Balfour, whom they aped, too, as soon as his back was turned.

During the day we walked over the moors and up the glens, considering past and present, Balfour and Ogilvie, trying to face the fact that in a swiftly changing world it was impossible for this country community to remain un-touched, inviolate. When we put this to Balfour, sitting late at night in the shadowy shop, he gazed at us mournfully. Would we betray him, too? Et tu, Brute? ``Yon orchard you talk about, yon, what do you call him, Lopakhin, you're like him after all. You'd chop down the cherry trees, too.''

Sometimes children sent the doorbell tinkling, come to buy paraffin oil, candles, or bannocks for their mothers. They sniggered at Balfour as he poked among the chaos of his stock, ``Wait now! I had my hand on them only two ticks ago!'' He gave them bags of toffee balls and butterscotch, watching them go scampering down the street. ``An irreverent and graceless generation,'' he said. ``No one teaches them to say thanks nowadays.''

For a year or two we were unable to take the northward road, but we kept thinking of Balfour fighting for a lost cause and imagined how Ogilvie must be mocking him. One morning a paragraph in the papers stood out: Permission had been given for a new road to be built through our Highland village; work was beginning almost immediately. So Balfour had failed. We set off as soon as possible, hoping to see our paradise before it vanished forever.

The moors and woodlands had never looked lovelier, birches and chestnuts flamed on the hills like golden torches. There was that extraordinary hush in nature in the fall before the gales of the equinox come to strip bare every tree. As we reached the familiar turning in the village street, we had our first shock -- the windows of Balfour's shop were boarded up, the roof was a gaping void. The new road would pass this way.

The landlord of our inn had less time for talk than in the past. There were changes since our last visit, a tourist center, a school for mountaineers. ``And Balfour's gone,'' he added. Gone! We were startled. ``Oh, he's alive all right. He just couldn't thole what was happening. He's off to Mallaig. There's a meeting in the school before it's pulled down too -- you'll get all the news there.''

When we turned up in the classroom, Ogilvie was launched forth in visions of the fresh life that would come sweeping along the new road. More than ever he was the tradesman, Lopakhin, triumphing over Madame Ranevskaya and Gaev as they wept for the loss of their beloved orchard, for fear of the alien times ahead.

``I hear the winds of change!'' he exclaimed, lifting his arm dramatically, for the wind had risen and was whining eerily through the eaves where the swallows had nested each year.

All at once, into the wind's soughing and the rustling of dry leaves came another sound, of the door being opened and of footsteps clumping across the creaking floorboards. We sensed who it was before we saw him. Balfour came right down to the front row and sat there, staring up at his old enemy. Ogilvie waved to him. He could afford to be magnanimous. It was good to see Balfour back in their midst. They had missed him.

``Aye, the deil you have,'' Balfour muttered wryly. Keep quiet, we wanted to call out. Don't show how you're hurt. You've lost, the new road is coming, this old school will go and your dear, untidy, muddled shop that we loved so much -- they'll both be bulldozed to the ground. You never had a chance with a man like Ogilvie.

``Here's Balfour to add a word,'' said Ogilvie with his foxiest grin. Balfour rose up heavily, gazing around the fusty, ink-smelling classroom.

There was a long silence while we all waited for the usual flustered fum-blings. We were to be surprised.

``I didn't think I had the courage to return,'' Balfour began, speaking slowly and steadily. ``I've got a room up there in Mallaig, overlooking the harbor, with boats coming and going all the time. Young people keep passing along, students, climbers, sailors, a new breed that I don't know, but they're the future and I'm learning to accept them, even to talk to them.''

There wasn't a sound to be heard as he went on, ``I've started to take stock of myself up there -- more than I ever did for my shop,'' he added wryly. ``You've laughed at me, like a last pine of the Caledonian Forest, you thought, due for felling, an obstinate fool, aye talking of our Highland heritage. Yet there's truth in what I said and you'd do well to mind it. Ogilvie's right, we can't stop time, but there will be no good future if we don't hold on to the best of the values handed down by our forebears, honesty, bravery, kindliness. I've a long walk back to Mallaig so I'll be on my way.'' He shook Ogilvie firmly by the hand, smiling round the room. ``Good luck to you all.''

The strangest look had grown on Ogilvie's face as Balfour spoke, and not only on his. Who had come out best after all? We would have liked to have spoken to our old friend again, but it was a good final sight of the man, with his big, lumbering figure and grizzled head, walking with a fine dignity out of the school.

The next morning we set off across the moors for home. The wind had lifted wisps of white hill mist, scarlet and amber leaves whirled in the air, skimming around us like birds. We looked back once, then drove on.

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