‘But things were not good at the castle. My father was very ill. He’d had a minor stroke, followed by a more serious one and was confined to bed. He was being looked after by nurses. His condition was such that he was barely able to recognize me. His speech was affected and, for the first few days, before he managed to recover a little, there was no possibility of coherent conversation. He was old and frail and rather pathetic and I almost felt sorry for him. Almost, but not quite.’
Extract from The Last Wolf
By David Shaw Mackenzie
Published by Thunderpoint Publishing
Within a couple of days I was back in Swordale. This was mainly because I had nowhere else to go. I had an idea that I might effect some kind of reconciliation with my father. It was a loathsome prospect but I desperately needed money. All the way up there on the train I asked myself if I really was such an unprincipled shit that I would crawl back to my father in the hope that he would give me a few quid. By the time I stepped off the ferry at Strongarve, the answer was pretty clear.
But things were not good at the castle. My father was very ill. He’d had a minor stroke, followed by a more serious one and was confined to bed. He was being looked after by nurses. His condition was such that he was barely able to recognize me. His speech was affected and, for the first few days, before he managed to recover a little, there was no possibility of coherent conversation. He was old and frail and rather pathetic and I almost felt sorry for him. Almost, but not quite.
Swordale was as cold, rain-battered and wind-blasted as I remembered it from my childhood. The floorboards creaked where they had always creaked and one of the windows, whose pane I had cracked with a ball when I was seven, still hadn’t been reglazed. My father had let the place run down. It was Maurice, later, who launched into a programme of repairs and redecoration that effectively saved the place from falling to pieces.
But Maurice wasn’t there. He sent a telegram saying that plans had changed and he was unable to return. This was not like Maurice at all. He’d been as devoted to his father as his father had been to him. Only something extraordinary would have persuaded him not to visit the old man now so seriously ill. But it didn’t take me long to realise what this was.
Maurice’s new wife, Hester, had arrived a week before I did. Their honeymoon over, Maurice had sent her on ahead to Swordale.
Hester was neither prim nor dull. She was very young – only twenty-three – and I found her physically attractive but not beautiful. At that time I believed that beauty resulted from close attention to hairstyle and artificial make-up. I was drawn to women who painted their faces and made them into something that, in reality, they were not. Hester wore her hair loose or in a loose ponytail and put nothing on her face. In Paris women with freckles applied tubs full of cream to hide them but Hester was without such camouflage. Her look was natural, easy and innocent. But perhaps she knew all along that this is what suited her best, that the sprinkling of freckles over her nose and her high cheekbones gave her a special look that powder and cream could not enhance. She was bright and organised and would take the castle staff and the rest of the islanders by surprise because she was very efficient and seemed to think of everything. She even took it upon herself to get some of the rooms in the castle redecorated to make the place more cheerful for my ailing father.
When we met she was wearing a red dress which was in contrast with the general feeling of doom that filled Swordale. And she was far from sombre. ‘I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,’ she said as we shook hands, and I believed her. She rarely said anything without meaning it, even the formulaic utterances that accompany such situations. Of course I had no experience on which to judge the sincerity, or otherwise, of her remark but her tone and her smile convinced me. I began to think, even then, that my brother was a fortunate man to have found someone like this.
A little later, as we took tea in one of the sitting rooms that overlooked the sea, she asked me what it was, exactly, that I did.
‘I’m a flâneur,’ I said.
‘Is that so?’ she replied. ‘It sounds a bit devilish to me.’
I said, ‘I am the man my mother warned me about,’ and she laughed.
The Last Wolf by David Shaw Mackenzie is published by Thunderpoint Publishing, and is £8.99.