We hit a deer on the way back up to Fort William. It was already dark and the train was running fast to Spean Bridge when there was suddenly a loud bang and the train ground to a halt while we heard an uneven bumping rolling away under the train. Everyone stopped and looked at each other but in a moment the train started up again. "It was a deer," confirmed Mel after a few minutes looking out, "I saw the body roll away."
It wasn't a good omen for our travel back to the island after a few days' break to do "practical" stuff on the mainland. But the advantage of doing the journey during the day instead of overnight was that we got to see how empty the landscape became as the sun set over Loch Lomond and the water turned pink and gold in the light. It was beautiful and the sadness I felt about the deer didn't last long - I've seen it happen too often in mountainous places - although I have thought about it a lot since then. But it heightened the sense of anxiety creeping up on me - I didn't really want to go back. All the things I was worried about before I left London (what am I going to DO there? who will I talk to? who will I turn into if I live on a tiny island?!) were all proving well-founded fears...but first of all I have to deal with a Saturday night train ride from Glasgow through to Mallaig, which is an experience in itself...
We leave Glasgow around 6 pm - it's the shoppers' train that will at some point turn into the clubbers' train. The shoppers have spent an exciting day in Glasgow and are worn out with buying stuff and are either falling asleep over their M&S, Accessorise and Primark bags (the teenagers) or sitting in groups drinking wine and giggling (the middle aged ladies). As the journey goes on, more and more shoppers get off at the little towns or villages, while more and more teenagers get on, intent on a night out "up to toon" in Fort William. A distinct smell of cigarettes and then of weed drifts down the carriage and now I understand why all the windows have been opened...Shortly before Fort William someone gets on and sits behind me, and the smell of ciggies and weed grows stronger. He has recognised a young couple who are sitting nearby and decides to chat with them. His observations are short but to the point: "It's fooking freezing, aye." Pause. "Aye, it's fooking freezing. Youse guys going up to toon?" (Inaudible response from the couple). "Aye. I fooking am an' all." Another inaudible remark from the couple. "Aye. Fooking right". Pause. "Fooking freezing, though, aye." There is another pause and then the conversation continues as a very loud monologue from the person behind me, which I can't understand most of as it's in broad Glaswegian. I can only make out "Un' then he said...'n' I was fooking like, FOOK...fer fook's sake...fooking FREEZING it fooking was."
From the deep voice and the bad smokers' cough that is going on behind me, I imagine a tall, rugged, scary Glaswegian man, maybe in his late thirties with a habit of going out and getting pissed on the train and who doesn't wrap up warm enough on autumn evenings. Hope he doesn't notice we're gay. Maybe he and his mates will beat us up at the next stop...Maybe I should offer him my coat. I don't dare look round in case he catches my eye and asks me what the fook I am staring at.
The next stop IS Fort William and I breathe a sigh of relief as I hear sounds of preparing departure from behind. Finally I dare to turn my head. A short, spotty boy with a snub nose and a bad red anorak is sat behind me, quite a bit shorter than I am. He looks about twelve years old. "Aye, well I'm fooking off now," he says unnecessarily to the couple, and departs. They follow, quietly.
It is now extremely cold (he was right about that) and once the majority of travellers have departed for their pubs and clubs I shut the windows. The next group of people to get on is more sedate...mostly middle aged types who look as if they are going on holiday to do birdspotting and they probably are; and an "alternative" looking American in a baseball cap reading the Guardian and wearing a Death Metal T-shirt (I know he's American because he asks one of the passengers for a light). Two of the teenagers have stayed on, one of them is a girl obviously training to be an actress, also American and very loud: "And then these guys made me wear this crazy costume, and wanted me to cut my hair off, and it made me look like a LESBEEYUN!" In the carriage up ahead there is a rowdy group of four gentlemen, one of which I recognise as the only non-white man I've seen so far in Mallaig - one of the bartenders from the Steam Inn, where we are staying tonight. I'm enjoying this cross-section of the Scottish population: teenagers, geeks, on-train smokers, bartenders, shoppers, birdwatchers, elderly ladies...but by the time we get to Mallaig I've had enough of it and just want to go to bed. It's nearly midnight, after all.
As we leave the train I see that the table where the Steam Inn group was sitting. It's impressively covered in three bottles of whisky, a huge number of cigarette papers and about 10 empty cans of Tennents. It's trashed and so are the guys. Pretty much next to the notice on the train that tells you that ScotRail no longer allow alcohol on trains after 9 pm. Someone had a fun night! They are all still stood on the platform smoking cigarettes in a wobbly fashion. The bartender looks at us suspiciously, he knows he's seen us before.
We get to the Steam Inn. Mel says, "Great, now we just have to walk into a small Scottish pub at midnight and tell them we've booked a room together." "It'll be fine," I say without conviction. We walk in. There are three teenagers sat at the bar, one couple playing pool and an extremely drunken group of bar staff sat in a corner. It's a bit quiet. Mel approaches the small person behind the bar, who seems also to be a teenager. "Er...we've booked a double room." Silence. "I'll have a look for youse". Teenager consults the book. "No, um, nothing here." "Well, we definitely booked it". Teenager consults another book. "Oh...umm....maybe...was your name Melanie?" "Yes it was." "Be with you in a minute". Teenager grabs a key and goes over to the group of drunken staff. She says something I think means she's going to show us to our room so will be gone for a minute or so. The most drunken member of staff, who must be the chef judging from her trousers, turns round to look at us. "FUCK!" she shouts. "Don't worry," the girl says to us, "it's been one of those days...she's just hammered."
We follow her up the stairs and just as we are getting to the room she does a double-take and goes back a couple of steps to a different door. "Sorry, we don't have a double after all. Is a twin ok?" Fine, anything is fine. She unlocks the door and then you can't see her for dust...
I am torn between despairing about where I have come to live and finding it hilarious. After about twenty seconds I can't stop laughing. This is the road to the isles and I want to enjoy it while I still have a sense of humour! Even though it's not quite what they put in the tourist brochures.