I was on my knees on the back seat of the black cab. Framed in the back window, the iron gates of the castle disappeared behind dense rhododendron bushes as we rounded a bend in the drive. Then the other car followed.
I ached inside. I felt as though part of my eight year old self was being wrenched from somewhere deep within me, and for the first time in my life, but not for the last, I dreaded tomorrow. Turning, at my mother’s insistence, my legs barely reached the floor of the cab. I leaned my head against the cushioning of the door, closed my eyes, and tried to forget.
Caroline, Howard and I were the children of staff members at Snedden Castle, a youth hostel in northern Scotland. For the entire summer we had run free and pushed the limits of all the wildness two ten year olds and an eight year old could reach. We rarely saw our parents or, to be honest, any other adult who may have had a level of authority over us. Whenever we did espy the shadow of grown-up law, we ran like ferrets into the trees or under the rhododendrons.
That was one of the best places. The rhododendron bushes were almost 80 years old and in below the thick, twisting limbs were little tunnels, made by other animals. Rabbits, foxes, perhaps badgers, wildcats, even other children. When the sun was beating down, the shade of the rhododendrons was cool, scented and alive. Often I would escape there myself, into my own secret world of scents and sounds, crawling between the thick, gnarled stems. When I was there alone there was no one else in the universe except me, and those imaginary friends and foes I brought with me.
During those times I explored my thoughts and feelings, often going over adult discussions I had overheard. Once, attempting to make childish sense of the Castle warden referring to my mother as stupid, I took out my anger on a patch of brambles. Kicking and punching, leaving my arms and legs threaded with lacerations, beads of blood seeping from the deeper scratches. The stinging pain of the cuts became the manifestation of my feelings, yet I was unable to fully grasp the reasoning or the remedy.
The grounds around the castle had been tamed at one time but now were tremendously overgrown. Bracken and ferns grew abundantly under pines, old oak, and birch and where there was space brambles grew and hung heavy with fruit. Colouring the landscape were millions of foxgloves, and sewn liberally among all that were sticky willies, dandelions, daisies, thistles, ground elder, nettles and an abundance of other strange plants.
I liked to pop foxglove flowers on the back of my hand.
“Don’t lick your hand,” said Howard. “Those are poisonous.” He looked solemn and knowledgable. “They use those plants to make poisoned darts.”
“Who does?” I looked warily at the skin on my hand.
“Natives” he said. Then he turned and ran off through a clump of fern, whooping like a red indian. Or, I suppose, how he imagined red indians would whoop if they inhabited Sutherland. I rubbed the back of my hand on my shorts, licked the skin tentatively and, when I didn’t immediately foam at the mouth, ran after him, “Howard, hang on, what natives?”
I hated Howard a little. He was slightly more than a year and a half older than me; bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, and not the most generous hearted of boys. He would often trick me into doing things, such as stealing chocolate biscuits from the unattended backpack of a hosteller, which regularly ended up with me being caught and him watching judgmentally from the sidelines as I received another dressing down; he would tease me about my name, call me ‘Wodewick’; and he would ‘lose’ my toy cars. I’m not sure whether I hated him more because he ‘lost’ my Man From U.N.C.L.E. ThrushBuster, or because my sister, Caroline, loved him.
Day after day, rain or shine, we explored our kingdom. We hunted, fished, fought great battles, built wartime field hospitals to tend for the wounded, and soared noisily and colourfully within the loose confines of the universe we had been given. We wandered as far afield as the nearest post-town, which was six miles away, crossed tall railway bridges, crawled through drain tunnels under roads, swam naked in isolated lochans and sun dried ourselves on the heather. It was a magical time. As my skin tanned over the summer, I felt that everything was becoming more golden and luminous. There was a freedom and a substance to this place that I had never felt before. This was my place I had found home.
One day the three of us discovered a secret garden in the castle grounds. We had come across a tall old wall right in the middle of a particularly dense area of bramble growth, fairly near, but hidden from, the main castle. We couldn’t get over it, so we followed it into the woods and, scrambling through the undergrowth, had kept beside it as it stumbled downhill. At one point we had to part from the wall because the undergrowth was so thick and there was a fallen tree blocking our path. When we got back to it we found a wooden door covered in flaky, green paint.
It wouldn’t easily open and it took the two boys using a fallen branch as a lever to crack it, and open it wide enough for us to scramble through. Within was another world.
What had clearly been a walled, kitchen garden had become an intense herbaceous jumble. Nature had taken back the garden but elements remained, so we could smell onion, rosemary, thyme and we could see a huge misshapen rhubarb patch, while everywhere was an abundance of rich green vegetation. It was difficult to tell whether nature had encroached like some pernicious, murderous disease or whether the garden itself had been the tumour on the wildness of the gentle slope and had been won back in some immense battle, leaving scars of tamed vegetation gone wild.
Along one wall was a greenhouse. Most of the glass was still in place, only a few panes damaged by the elements or by some plant breaking free. We entered via an opening that had been made by the collapse of some sort of wooden archway that had stood over the barely visible path. Inside the smell of growth, of vegetable life, was overpowering, and the atmosphere was hot and humid. We could see cobwebs bigger than any we had seen before, and a rampage of green and yellow, brown and grey.
It would’ve made a fine headquarters for us. We had been evicted from the dungeon at the castle, in reality an old ice store where the cook, who didn’t want us “little bastards” getting under his feet when he was fetching provisions, kept tinned food. I thought this place was magnificent: a crystal palace within a jungle. But Howard felt that we could be seen too easily through the glass. The fact that it was obvious that no man had been anywhere near this spot for a very long time was lost on him, so the HQ idea was out. Caroline, in her infatuation, agreed. We did, however, decide that this was something to be kept to ourselves. Our place.
For the rest of that summer we used the secret garden as a base. Somewhere to store things we had found or purloined or made. It wasn’t our ‘headquarters’ as such, Howard had decided that was to be in a little clearing under the rhododendrons next to the courtyard gate, but it was our fortress, our fastness against the adult world, and no adult ever came through the undergrowth to the garden. It was the place we always came back to.
Caroline and I had only met Howard that summer. We were from suburban Glasgow and he was from somewhere in the English midlands. He had arrived with his family a few days before we did, so he assumed the role of guide, historian, botanist and fount of knowledge regarding the estate and the surrounding area. In my mind he had assumed the role of self important, mildly bullying, big cousin.
The only part of the castle we were forbidden to explore without an adult, other than the hostellers’ dormitories, was the clock tower. This had been included when the castle was built as a show of ostentation, a finger to the Duchess’s snooty in-laws, and so that passengers on the trains passing below could adjust their watches to the correct time before their arrival at destinations further north.
It was approached by climbing the grand staircase from the great hall, another stairway to the third floor and then up a narrow wooden stair and through a locked door leading to the clock room. A ladder led from the clock room to a door that opened onto a small, square, battlemented roof. Every stage of the route to the clock tower was narrower, less showy, smaller, more confined, somehow less secure, until the sky opened above you and the landscape lay around you for miles on every side.
Every few days hostel staff gave tours of the tower for residents as part of the whole ‘Snedden experience’. These tours were laced with fascinating, and not entirely true, stories about the building of the castle, the animosity between the owner and her husband’s family and several, specially concocted, ghost stories, the best of which involved a spectral white lady who haunted the tower, the main staircase, and the great hall of the castle, and who pointed her bony finger only at those doomed to die.
We were desperate to have the roof of the tower to ourselves for a while, the better to map out our territory. So we hatched a plan to join a tour group and, when they went up the last bit to the roof, we would hide in the clock room and wait till they’d been up, looked around, and gone back down into the castle. The subterfuge was carried off very easily and we found ourselves, one sunny day, on the highest point of a fairly high building. Without supervision.
I remember it distinctly and specifically. The air was hot, heavy and humid and the views from the tower were vaguely indistinct, as though the landscape had been painted with diluted watercolour. We laughed and jumped up and down when we made it to the roof but then Caroline said, “Sshhh, if anyone hears us they’ll make us come down and we’ll end up having to peel potatoes or something.”
Often, when we were caught out in misdemeanours we were given chores to do around the castle. There were a lot of chores.
We each went to a different quarter and looked out.
“Howard, there’s the railway bridge!” called Caroline
“I can see the golden lochan.” I said.
“Oh, this is amazing!” Howard shouted in a loud whisper. “We could parachute from here, or drop water bombs on people. Look, the Hall door is right down there…” He leaned out through a gap in the crenellations and pointed straight down. I came up beside him and looked. I felt the height in my base of my spine.
“Look, there’s the cook.” He was in the courtyard of the castle, leaning against a wall, having a smoke. As we watched, we saw him reach around and scratch his behind and crotch quite vigorously, then he threw his butt over the wall and began walking back to the main door. We ducked down and giggled like hyenas, even though we knew he’d never look up.
The tower roof was not quite the tallest part of the castle. At each corner of the battlement was a smaller, rounded turret. One of them was taller than the rest, about ten feet tall and not quite big enough to go inside. The rust eaten remains of an old metal ladder led to the top of this and to a flagpole from which, on occasion, the Scottish Saltire would wave grandly and could be seen for miles around.
“I want to go up there,” said Howard.
“Don’t be silly, the ladder’s broken.” Caroline was ever the pragmatist.
“But there are handholds in the stonework, and you can hang onto this metal thing.” He leaned out and pulled at what I had been told was the lightning rod.
“No,” said Caroline, “it’s too dangerous Howard.”
I think Howard was just showing off, and had no intention of actually climbing, but he jumped and grabbed a protruding stone and began to pull himself upwards. “I’m going to touch the flag!”
“Me too!” said I, full of eight year old bravado and jealousy, and began to climb up onto the battlemented wall. I climbed out and on to a ledge, about three inches wide, that circled the turret.
“Roddie!!” Cried Caroline and leapt to grab me but I was on the outer wall and reaching for the next stone.
Caroline was clearly terrified. Scared to scream at us in case it drew the attention of adults, yet scared not to, in case we fell to our deaths. I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing.
My left foot slipped as I looked for a foothold and I found myself hanging by my fingertips from the turret, over the main tower wall, nothing between me and the car park.
I couldn’t move, I was frozen to the wall and there was nowhere I could go, except down.
“Howard, help Roddie, he’s stuck.” Howard hadn’t gone any higher than when he jumped and grabbed his first handhold and, when he heard the real fear in Caroline’s voice, he dropped to the roof and came round to where I was hanging.
“We can’t get him this way, we’ll have to go round the other side and hold him while he gets back on here.”
“Please!!” Caroline’s voice was high pitched and unnatural.
“I’ll go grab his shirt and then you can pull him over here.” I could tell he was about to become heroic and cement his position in Caroline’s heart.
I don’t really know what happened next, just that I could feel Caroline beside me, then Howard’s hand at the back of my shirt and my feet found the ledge. I was edged back down and round towards the inner wall. Howard let me go and went back to the roof and, just as I was reaching the wall to jump down, Caroline edged herself slightly out of the way to let me past.
One minute she was there and the next…
There was no sound, no scream, just a sudden, huge, empty hole where she, seconds before, had been. Then a thump. Howard’s face was ghostlike. The world was still hazy, golden, hot, sticky, but it felt chilled.
Suddenly my bowels moved and I began to wail a sharp loud, keening wail that continued through the next hours as adults appeared from nowhere, people running back and forth, shouts, screams, me being passed from hand to hand down the stairs. I remember the haunted, questioning look on my mother’s face as she grabbed me and held me close, and I remember the atmosphere of blame, of singular responsibility. My doing.
An eventual ambulance siren cut the afternoon, punctuating the drama. A hellish full stop.
Howard was sent south to live with his grandparents until his parents had finished work for the season.
My mother and I left the castle in a taxi, my sister followed us alone. We never returned to Snedden, though in my heart, my memory, it remains the central pillar of a greater magic than I have experienced since.
We turned the corner, out of the castle drive, and the long road south opened up before us.