Robin Hardy - screenwriter, producer, director, playwright and novelist - has had a career on both sides of the Atlantic. His film, The Wicker Man, is considered a classic of its genre. His fiction includes The Education of Don Juan, a Book of the Month selection in the USA; The Wicker Man (with Anthony Shaffer); and Don Juan's New World. In 1988 he had a critical success in London's West End with Winnie, a play, with music, about Winston Churchill. His work for television has been worldwide: The Ramayana (with Ravi Shankar) in India; Paradise Lost (with Sir Ralph Richardson) in England; and The Frozen Moment (with Sessue Hayakawa) in Japan, among many others. For a number of years he was a leading producer/director of television commercials in the USA and Europe.
Scotland’s spring comes later than England’s, but on the Borders between the two nations it is well advanced by mid April. The kitchen gardens in little towns like Kelso, Coldstream and Tressock are already full of fruit blossoms, and the rough winds that blow across the bare, heather strewn countryside do not wait for the darling buds of May but are already scattering a torrent of petals around the sturdy stone houses of these borderland Scots.
Tressock Castle rises like a cliff face from a rocky promontory where the River Sulis, a tributary of the Tweed, provides it with half its moat. Its towering stone flanks are surmounted by an odd jumble of turrets, mansard roofs, domes and pinnacles. It is a Scottish baronial collage of a building. Somewhere its innards are mediaeval, sometime courtyards long since enclosed as great airy Adam-decorated rooms and everywhere, on the lower floors, huge windows have been punched into the cliff-face walls, to let in the precious light, work done in the seventeenth century when the possession of lots of valuable glass was a mark of conspicuous consumption.
On the dry side of the castle, as it were, lawns and parterres, reflecting pools and fountains, immaculate glass houses and a well-stocked, walled kitchen garden all attest to this being the home of people who care about their surroundings and can afford to do so. Only the topiary, which forms a kind of honour guard from the castle’s porte cocher, past its stables, to the great gates that lead to the little town of Tressock, is so unusual as to be condemned in local guide books as ‘odd’. Foreigners, unused to British English, do not always realise how severe a censure this adjective implies, for the carefully pruned yew trees that parade along each side of the drive suggest rows of jaunty phalluses.
On the comparatively rare occasions when the sun penetrates the grey, purple cloud cover over the Tressock hills, it waits until it has risen high enough for its warmth to seep through, casting pale shadows on the castle’s lawns. But just occasionally it surprises by rising clear and bright over the heathered hills at dawn.
On such a day, Sir Lachlan and Lady Morrison found themselves awakening in their Tressock Castle home to great shafts of blinding sunlight coming through the windows of their bedroom and penetrating the half drawn curtains of their huge four-poster bed. Four broad-bosomed, bearded hermaphrodites, carved in ebony, supported the canopy above the awakening couple. Lady Morrison closed the bed curtains hastily, shutting out the sun, and thought, perhaps for the thousandth time, how she hated the hermaphrodites and how extraordinary it was that Lachlan admired them.
She watched her husband slowly awaken. In the fifteen years of their marriage she had become accustomed to the unexpected from Lachlan, save in a small number of foibles and habits where he was as consistent as a well-oiled chiming clock. Unusually for a Scot, he never took a bath, subjecting himself to freezing showers instead, and he shaved with a cut-throat razor that had belonged to his great-great-great-grandfather, Sir John Morrison (vi of Tressock), who had served with the Coldstream Guards at Waterloo under the Duke of Wellington. It lived, this razor – actually there were several – in the long-dead soldier’s leather travelling kit. The sound of it being sharpened on its stone slab always put Lady Morrison’s teeth on edge. So she had bought Lachlan a state-of-the-art electric razor as a May Day present. He thanked her with his customary civility and suggested she use it on her legs.
But now he was completing what, for him, was the ritual of becoming totally awake. His eyes stared at her, unblinking, unwavering for at least thirty seconds – a long time, at any rate. It was as if some battery inside him was slowly activating and then, suddenly, startlingly, he was again the vivid presence that filled her days, her life. He was speaking to her, speaking urgently.
‘Delia, I want you to be ready to go to Glasgow tomorrow early,’ he was saying. ‘This wretched concert is so late this year it gives us very little time to do what must be done.’
‘But I’ve still got the feasts to plan,’ said his wife a little plaintively. ‘Unless you think we could persuade everyone to celebrate May Day a little later… well, people do it with birthdays.’ She had seen the expression on his face and knew at once the absurdity of her suggestion. ‘I’m joking, of course,’ she added hurriedly.
At breakfast, Lachlan’s mobile cell phone rang repeatedly. Beame, a tall, corpulent butler with a mincing walk poured coffee while Lachlan fended off a series of business calls. Delia took the phone from him so he could finish his breakfast. It rang again almost at once and she answered it.
‘This is Lady Morrison. My husband is having breakfast, Mr Tarrant.’ She put her hand over the phone and looked questioningly at Lachlan. He scowled and stretched out his hand for the phone. By the time he spoke his voice was quietly composed:
‘If you want a statement from me in reply to your article – in the Echo was it? Yes… you can have one. Call my office and make a time to come in, Mr Tarrant. It’s Magnus isn’t it? I am always anxious to be completely open with the press, you know that… Well you should. I’m away for a few days. But as soon as I get back… I look forward to it, Magnus.’
Lachlan has been studiously polite with a journalist whose hectoring tone could easily be imagined by Delia, who had met the man more than once.
‘No. Why should it? Every nuclear power station in the country, probably every one in Europe, has the local press cooking up stories about dangers to the local population. If it’s not radiation, it’s the hazard of some terrible accident. Nuada is no exception. Our accident was quite a while ago, and it wasn’t as serious as it might have been. They never seem to quite accept that.’
‘Well it affected those fish in the river,’ said Delia.
‘They only ever got to photograph that one mutant fish out of the Sulis. But what real damage it has done they simply can’t figure out. Listen, they’ll keep on trying to get another story out of it. And we’ve got to keep on showing we’ve nothing to hide.’
Beame had meanwhile reappeared.
‘The Glee Club have arrived, sir,’ he announced. ‘I’ve shown them into the music room. Coffee is already there, ma’am, so if I may be excused?’
‘Of course, Beame,’ she said.
The sound of the Glee Club singing drifted through the open doors of the music room, up the marble Jacobean staircase with its heavily carved balustrades and into the room where Delia was putting the finishing touches to the public uniform worn by most Scots women of her kind: sensible shoes and a heathery tweed suit over a pale purple cashmere jersey, a string of good pearls and a brooch of enamel and gold, framed in modest sized diamonds, in this case representing the arms of the Black Watch, a Scottish regiment to which a former husband had briefly belonged before she left him for the far more interesting and, it must be said, challenging Sir Lachlan.
Delia lifted the house phone to call Daisy, the cook, but got no answer. She knew that Daisy, while unusually good at cooking anything but vegetables and a conscientious member of Alcoholics Anonymous, tended to fall off her wagon as the heavy responsibility of preparing the May Day feasts approached. Delia was about to hurry down to the kitchen when she was detained by her mirror (a seven-foot-high Victorian looking glass which reflected the whole six feet of her), not simply to confirm that her lipstick was on straight or that her tights showed no wrinkle at the ankle, but to check that the Lady Morrison face and figure, celebrated in paintings by Hockney and Annigoni, had not somehow faded away overnight.
No more vain really than most people, Delia had originally believed she was cursed with being beautiful, because she had learnt to suppose that both men and women found it was her single most important characteristic. Perhaps some even thought it was her only real asset. It came, she thought, this mild paranoia of hers, from her observation that people simply stared at the few other beautiful women she knew, rather than listening to what they had to say.
She paused again in her hurried journey down to the kitchen, at the open doors to the Music Room. Lachlan was playing the piano and intermittently conducting the Glee Club in the Amen section of Handel’s Messiah. How unnecessarily long-drawn-out that Amen always seemed to Delia, who loved the music but cared nothing for the words. Lachlan was not at the moment singing, but of course would be in Glasgow Cathedral tomorrow. She was slightly disappointed. His singing voice always thrilled her. The Glee Club, a dozen local men from Tressock and six of Lachlan’s employees from the Nuada nuclear power station, had their backs to her as they sang, but she recognised most of them.
Delia never ceased to marvel at how Lachlan held the loyalty and respect of so many diverse people. In a Scotland where deference of any kind was long since banished, and lairds, like Lachlan, were very often distrusted as effete and too English sounding, he held his neighbours’ and his employees’ esteem. They continued to accept him as their leader, she believed, because he had always included them in his project, in his adventure. His seemingly effortless authority was perhaps part political, part priestly but really defied analysis. Whatever. It worked. She had waited for a moment, just in case he sang, and was rewarded, because Lachlan was now delivering Handel’s last great crowning Amen in his glorious, deep bass voice. In Delia, this always produced a melting inner throb, as if from an intimate caress. She gave a little shiver of pleasure and hurried on down to the nether world of the castle’s great kitchens.
On one side of the long, wide passage that bisected the basement lay the main kitchen and another huge room, which was almost always locked. On the other side were the still room, the laundry, the larders, the freezers, the now defunct dairy, the sewing room and what had once been the servants’ dining room and the cook’s and butler’s parlour. Where, sixty years ago, there had been twenty-five servants at Tressock Castle, the place was run now with a staff of five: Daisy, the cook, Beame, the butler, and three women who came in daily to clean the twenty-odd rooms still in more or less constant use. Half a dozen major modern appliances made the cleaning no more than a repetitive chore. The roaring whine that Delia heard as she reached the basement passage came not, she at once realised, from one of these machines but from Beame’s workshop in the defunct dairy.
‘The door’s locked of course,’ said Daisy. ‘I keep shouting at him to stop a minute but he canna hear me over that machine of his. Please be careful where you step.’
Delia was relieved to see that her cook was perfectly sober and immediately wondered why Heather had her apron and hands covered in blood.
‘Well go and wash yourself, Heather,’ said Delia. ‘And get out of those soiled clothes. Daisy, find her something else to wear. Give me that mop.’
After a few seconds, the sound behind the door stopped and there was silence. Then Beame’s voice, cautious, suspicious: ‘Who’s that?’
‘It’s me, Beame. The blood is flooding out into the passage. You’ve got plenty of room in there. Move what you’re doing away from the door.’
‘I didna realise, ma’am. Sorry.’
‘It’s quite alright, Beame. Carry on the good work. We’re off to Glasgow tomorrow early. Hope you’ll be finished by then.’
To buy The Wicker Tree direct from the publisher, click here.
(C) Robin Hardy 2012
© Paul Kane 2003-2018. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.