Scotland’s north-east is a series of jagged headlands and broken bays. I sit in the car at Burghead, on a promontory of the Moray Firth, staring at a stretch of distant houses on a long finger of land pointing into the sea; the water all around is a deep blue, rare in a world so often grey; the small waves pound at the rocks, keeping time with random thoughts.
I used to live in that town, the laughter of those years rings still in my bones. I unwind the window and let my spirit loose on the currents of time, eavesdropping on the wind for the footsteps of those who came before.
Never in the 37 years since I left Hopeman had I hesitated about the thought of revisiting this world, lost in time to me. I have had a date with this moment since our family left in the wee hours of a bitterly cold New Year’s Day in 1976.
Yet as I stare across the landscape at the small stone village, I wonder if I ought not turn back, leave the past where it rests easy, bequeath hearts and minds – particularly mine – to unsettled peace.
But turning back is not my way. I turn the key instead, and drive. A blink puts me in Cummingston – the Colach . . . already the old language is playing with me – I had forgotten completely about this small stone blot on the map. And then I am on the outskirts of Hopeman, marked now by a brown sign in a flower bed. I drive past the old hotel that still looks like it ought to have bats in the belfry, The Newk, somewhat abandoned and for sale; across the road is our old house: 59 Forsythe St. I still remember the phone number: 284.
I look for the Townes farmhouse up the road, but it is gone, so too the old barn, although the fields across the road are still varying shades of green and gold, late summer farmland; the paddocks behind the now non-existent house are a cul-de-sac housing development.
I turn left into the main street, Harbour Street, and look for the cafe, Miele’s Cafe, a meeting place for the village’s teenagers and the sole source of our entertainment in 1975, that and under-age drinking.
Then again, I’m not so sure there ever was an age limit to drinking.
I learned to play pool upstairs in that cafe . . . the 1975 Hopeman Pool Champion, that would be me . . . a small supermarket stands where the cafe ought to be . . . but two doors down I see a sign advertising Miele’s icecream. And a larger sign: The Primrose Cafe.
There is no better place to start . . . I pull up outside, walk through the door . . . the juke box is gone, the icecream counter is facing the other way, the red booths are now pine tables and there are no stairs leading up. I am disappointed – not that the cafe has changed, but that the demographic of its clientele is no longer the laughing, hollering village youth.
Three young women are behind the counter. I am hesitant, I do not know what to say to their pretty, expectant faces and step back out onto the street, staring down towards the pier.
The town is different. There are nae wifeys standin’ aroon blatherin’ outside the butcher or the bakery or the post office. In fact there is naebody on the street at a’. But there are so many cars parked on the side of the road that two cars can no longer pass at the same time – and I have to wait to cross the road.
There is a high stone wall across the road from the cafe: clear as the blue day I can still see the boys leaning against it, all in a row; now there are vines draped over the wall and flower beds on the corner – I wonder if they are meant to stop people standing around.
The phone box is still there, now silver; kids used tae call down to the phone box and if naebody answered, then the wee phone at the other end of the street would ring.
Beside the cafe are the stairs that lead up to the street of my best friend Linda Main’s hoose; they are cold cement covered in rubbish, no laughter there.
Overcome by a wave of ordinariness, I turn away and wander up the narrow street towards our old house, past the kirk with its grey stone tower rising square above the toon, past B&Bs where families and aul’ folk use tae bide, past Jordie Townes’s non-existent farm. A small group of children chatters loudly as they walk by. I am startled to realise they are not speaking the old dialect; I can ken every word of their easy English. Perhaps the new sub division was built for them.
… although I duv mind a warm summer’s day where my sister and I excitedly pulled on our bikinis and ran down to the pier, alive to the welcome sunshine and memories of Australian summers, and threw ourselves into the North Sea.
Well, we never did that again.
I slide down the wall across fae the kirk to sit on the damp road. I dinna ken where I am. It is a strange toon tae me. A child bumps along the pockmarked lane on his scooter. I want to stop him, demand ‘who are your parents?’
And I want to weep for mythologised pasts, for my family and me. For Hopeman is our story, the best of our fun and laughter, our shared ‘remember when’. Perhaps my longing to weep is for the passage of youth, rather than time and place; for the invincibility of the young, in any hemisphere.
I slide back up the wall and wander back to the cafe. Two of the young women sit at a table with icecreams and I sit down with them.
‘You’re not gonna believe this,’ I tell them with my broad and obviously Australian accent, ‘but I used to live here.’
Their eyes pop as they lick.
I start rattling off names, most of them ending with More or Main. The youngest tells me she is a Main, but I dinna ken her parents.
The woman still behind the counter wanders over, wiping her hands on her apron. I ask about the cafe; she tells me that the little string of stores in this part of the village burned down about 15 years ago.
‘We used to be two doors up,’ she says.
‘You’ve still got Miele’s icecream,’ I say.
I say: ‘I remember Mario stirring that icecream with his bare arm, right there behind the counter.’
Now it’s her turn to laugh.
‘I’m a Miele,’ she says. ‘I’ve just been upstairs stirring the icecream.’
I am staring at Mario’s daughter, who coincidentally is the same age as my own daughter.
I blink as I stare into the passage of time, at vivid memories now dust.
Perhaps this is what it’s like to be elderly: the past is more tangible than the present . . . nae, the past is the present.
The girls cannae help me, although knowing the village as I do, they will tell aboot me, so I let them know I’ll be back in a day or twa.
I head down to the beach and wander along the grassy path, certain that the row of bright beach huts used to be on the other side of the pier, shaking my head at the fickle nature of memory.
It is strange walking along the beach, smiling at people I may know with the courtesy of strangers when we ought to be wrapping our arms around each other with warm salutations: ‘old friend, how are you?’
I dinna ken fat ta dae. I eat the last of my wild smoked salmon and goats cheese in the easy glow of late afternoon sunshine, watch families making the most of it with picnic suppers by the beach, glance aboot for a flat grassy spot to camp for the night.
I was 16 years old in 1975, my sisters and brother 15, 14 and 12. We are now all in our 50s – I stare at the families: how do you find teenage faces in a middle aged world?
Try as I might to peer through veils of time, I cannot find them.
At 6 o’clock I head up to the Station Hotel, to charge the computer and chill out until darkness comes and I can pitch the tent. I lean over the bar and order a whisky.
‘Australian?’ says the barman.
I nod, leaning further over the bar; being funny, I say, my voice a sharp beam of light, ‘I used to live here’.
‘Stephanie!’ he cries, as he hands me my whisky.
I nearly fall off my chair and knock down the drink.
I stare into his unfamiliar face.
He tells me he is Stanley Murray. He was ages wi’ my youngest sister, Virginia. Stan and I start exchanging names in the village – it is then I realise that the women I was asking for in the cafe have married and changed their names.
I knew Stan’s sister Sandra. He tells me she married Jenso. He asks if I know Linda Dixon. I say OMG, she married Sandy. I ask about Ginny’s best friend Hilary Jack; ‘aye,’ he says, ‘the Jacks are still up the top o’ the street’.
I ask about my sister Liz’s old boyfriend Dobbin, which snatches the attention of the younger men at the bar. They call him Dobs now and one o’ the younger ones calls him up on the phone. Dobs and I laugh straight up as we always did. He’s nae longer in the village and we arrange to meet in Elgin after the weekend.
I pack up my charging computer, tell Stanley I’ll be back and head off into the evening, up the street to find Hilary Jack. I can vaguely remember where Hilary lived, on the road through town across from the fields, down the street from us. Hilary was 12 years old when last I kenned her; she had laughing eyes, bright and brown, and she could stuff her whole fist inside her mouth. I remember her in a knee length dark blue skirt, a white blouse and a wild red satin jacket with silver stars on the back – the latter completely incongruent with the stark blue uniform.
As I neared her old hoose a woman with bright silver hair came onto the street. I asked if she knew where the Jacks lived.
‘And fa might ye be lookin’ for?’ she asked, and as she smiled I knew I was about to tell Hilary Jack that I was looking for Hilary Jack.
I have tears in my eyes as I tell this story, just like Kathleen More did when I caught up with her in Elgin yesterday. The tears are for an innocent time, the happiest times, for love of deep friendship and a village certain of its place in the grand scheme of things.
The moment Hilary kenned fa I was, she whisked me into her mother’s hoose and put on the tea. The following day when I called by, the Jacks wouldna hear of me camping down by the beach and so they settled me intae oor Audrey’s upstairs room.
And so, once again, I enter the life of the village.