ISLAND MEMORIES

Jeri on sofa Mannfield Avenue 1967 (4)

I’ve been following my friend Jane Coleman’s lovely blog of her sojourn on the Western Isles (colemanje.56.wordpress.com).

My maternal family came from the island of Lewis.   My mother came to The Mainland at the age of 14, and was more or less a permanent exile and ex-islander all her life.   I have visited Lewis twice, once with my mother when I was a teenager, and once with John and all five children when mine were still quite small.   I remember the strangeness of the Standing Stones at Callanish and an absolutely magnificent day on an utterly empty glorious beach on the Atlantic coast, complete with the horned island cattle, when Kerri my stepdaughter was swept away on an undercurrent and John only just managed to catch her.

Island life has never appealed to me (too small, too watched).    However I am looking forward to making a third visit this summer, when a massed gathering of the island’s descendants through my mother and my aunt will gather on its shore.     There will be ten of our number who have a blood connection to that place, none of whom have ever lived there.    We will return to the island the ashes of one of its own.

But when Jane of the lovely blog last visited here we were discussing Rodel, a harbour at the Southern tip of the Lewis/Harris  island which my mother and I had visited during our holiday there.   We stayed in a bed and breakfast where the food was very good even by my mother’s exacting standards.   My father had driven us to Ullapool from where we had sailed, and he came back for us but he declined to go, never having any time for holidays.  (What would I do? he would ask.)    We enjoyed as we often do, glorious weather during our trip, apart from that one day when we elected to go to  Rodel.   Jane was reminding me that it has a mediavel church of some interest but I had forgotten that.

My mother and I took the bus down, leaving behind the flat ‘macher’ (flower filled marshy meadow) of Lewis and came down  through the mountains of Harris with everything shrouded in mist and ‘small rain’.    I don’t recall anything at all about the port and village except that exploring them in this fine but penetrating ‘mist’ took no time at all and we then had several hours to dispose of before the return bus going North in the evening.

My mother said, we’ll just have to go and have lunch in the hotel.   There was only one hotel in Rodel, a sturdy large rambling building made of grey stone.   There was no clear entrance and we picked our way round the outskirts, until eventually we came across a door that opened to our push.

We found ourselves in an unkempt bar.   A profound silence fell as the occupants – perhaps half a dozen men seated at different tables – all stared at us.   There was a rough sort of bar, unattended.    The men looked at us as though we were interlopers from another planet.    No-one said a word.   We had come in out of the rain and the door clicked behind us.   After what seemed like the longest few seconds I have  ever experienced, one man bawled out, ‘Dougie!’    Steps sounded in a passageway and another door was opened and a dark head popped round.   “You’ll have to be getting Mary,” said the same man, gesturing with his thumb at us.

The whole man materialised from behind the door  the better to stare at us, as though we were a rare sight.   Then, without a word, he disappeared and his steps could be heard fading away.

“Let’s go,” I whispered to my mother.

“Wait,” she said.  “There’s no-where else and we have to eat something.”

The men withdrew their gaze from us but the silence continued.

Minutes passed, and then the door re-opened to admit a stout elderly lady, dressed entirely in black and with a face as sombre as her raiment.    These people did not seem to have t he power of speech, for she looked at us but said nothing.

“We were wondering,” my mother said, “whether we might have lunch?”

“Lunch?” repeated Mary, as though they’d never heard of such  a thing.

My mother nodded.  (This place appeared to rob everyone of the powers of speech.)

Mary looked at us for a long time , and finally said, “Will sandwiches be sufficient?”

In truth we had been hoping for something hot, but there did not seem to be much likelihood of that.    My mother nodded her agreement.  The men were again watching with interest.

“It’ll have to be chicken.” said Mary.

“Chicken would be very nice,” replied my mother.

Mary looked at us again, first at my mother and then with definite disapproval at me (mini-skirt, and not as tractable as my mother.)   Then she informed us, as though we had committed some grave faux pax, “And if you will be so kind as to follow me, I will conduct you to the Ladies Parlour.”

We followed.     As we trailed along slowly in her wake, we began to feel the house was like a tardus.   All was in darkness and our guide switched on lights as we went.   We climbed stairs, we walked along passages, we descended stairs.   I began to wish I had crumbs I could scatter like Hansel and Gretel.   Eventually, Mary opened a   creaking door and bid us enter a shaded room.   She herself crossed the floor and opened the heavy curtains and we were looking at the oddest room I had, at that tender age, ever seen.

There were faded but beautiful rugs.   The seating was heavily carved wooden chairs and sofas, piled high with colourful cushions.   Three large wooden elephants of decreasing size, though the smallest would have supported a child, took up quite a lot of space although this was a large room.   Glass-fronted cabinets were full of exotic items – carved wood, fans, silver, brass, boxes.   There were portraits of foreign ladies, dressed in saris, fading on the walls.   A tiger skin sprawled before the fireplace.   I cannot describe how astonished we were to find this den of the exotic Orient in a grey hotel on the Western Isles.

“If you will be so kind as to wait here, I will fetch the refreshments,”  stated our companion.

“Very well,” said my mother.   Mary turned and with her slow, sedate step left  the room, closing the door behind her.   Her footsteps receded in the corridor and silence fell once more.

I got up and tried the door handle.   It was not locked, although the windows were all screwed down and we were on an upper floor.   The room had a fine view.

“This is the oddest room I’ve ever seen in my life,’ I said to my mother, while examining my reflection in a spotted and distorting  mirror.

“Some owner has  gone to India and made a fortune and shipped all this stuff back home.”

“We’ll never be able to find our way out,” I said.

Since my mother did not say, ‘Don’t be silly,’ as she might have done, it was clear she was as uneasy as myself.   We waited.

We waited for a long, long, long, long time.   I left to my own devices would have lit out for freedom several times and at least made an attempt to make it back to the sunlit lands.   My mother however insisted the dark dame would return.   So we waited and waited.

Eventually, far off,  I could hear her slow footsteps returning.   I told my mother, who just nodded as though she had never doubted it.

The old woman’s progress was very slow and when she opened the door we saw she was carrying an enormous wooden tray.   My mother directed me to help, but any assistance was disdained.   The carved wooden tray was laid on a brass table beside my mother.

“Will  you be requiring the Ladies’ Room before eating?” Mary enquired of my mother who shook her head.

“Then,” she continued, pointing to an embroidered bell pull, “if you will be so good as to be pulling that bell pull, I will return and escort you to the Ladies’ Room.”

“Thank you,” said my mother.  I wanted to ask for a map, but didn’t.

When Mary’s footsteps died away, my mother whsked the cloth away.   There was another surprise.   A large  teapot, smothered in a teacosy with embroidered flowers we’d never seen , was  heavily encrusted with gold ornamentation;    but it was full of hot and very welcome tea.   There were linen napkins.    And a large plate of dainty sandwiches – fresh bread, moist chicken and mayonnaise.  Two pieces of delicious home made fruit cake and two shiny apples completed our feast.    We fell upon it and devoured it all.   Everything was delicious.

When we were finished, we put everything tidily back on the tray.   When the cloth was in place my mother pulled the bell pull.   We heard no ring.   I said to my mother – after a delay – she should pull again but she said it would be rude to harass the old lady.   Eventually the slow steps returned.

“That was just what we were needing,” said my mother.

“Och aye,” said Mary who clearly didn’t fraternise with strangers.  My mother directed me to carry the tray, but Mary would have none of that.   We followed her back to quite near the bar, where she showed us a modern ladies’ cloakroom.   When we came out, she was standing in the corridor.

“How much do we owe you?” enquired my mother.   Mary named a modest sum.   My mother paid handsomely.   Mary was about to go fetch change, but my mother  waved that away.

“I’ll let you out here,” said Mary, unbending a fraction, “so you’ll not be having to go through the Public Bar.”

We emerged into the light.

“That was a strange place,” I said to my mother.

“I’d never heard of it,” said my mother with sight surprise, for on an island everybody has generally heard everything about anybody.

I haven’t forgotten Rodel.   I might just go back this summer but after all this time and all my own travels, in the interim,  I’m sure the extraordinary impact it had on me will not be repeated.  (If indeed it still exists.)

(The photograph of Jeri is from about the time that we took that holiday in Lewis, and was taken by Eugene.)

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About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

10 Responses to ISLAND MEMORIES

  1. Sheena says:

    I almost expected you to say that when you finally emerged, you’d found twenty years had elapsed.

    Ken, Mary, Duncan and I were in that very hotel in about 1990 and it hadn’t changed much from your description. Aside from beverages from the bar, all we could scare up were a few packets of crisps (and very grateful for them, we were!).

    I showed the photo to Claire and she thought it was me.

    • adhocannie says:

      No, it wasn’t quite Rip van Winkle. It was just the complete unexpectedness of it and the contrast between all those dour people and this exotic little retreat. Mary seemed to disapprove thoroughly of women invading the wholly uninviting Public Bar, one wondered what her opinion was of this slightly uncomfortable collection. I’ve always thought you look much more like my mother than I do. Still, it’s a compliment to be mistaken for Jeri, and especially by one’s own daughter, since they never tend to flatter!

  2. Evelyn says:

    Lovely picture, Anne. You are very like her.

  3. adhocannie says:

    Oh, I think you’re too kind. I wonder if that room is still there?

  4. adhocannie says:

    Eugene advises me that he accompanied my father on the trips to put us on the ferry and bring us back. He thinks I was probably about 22. He says the ferry at that time sailed from Kyle of Lochalsh and only later (when I went with John for example) did it sail from Ullapool. He has visited this hotel in recent years and says it is not alot different from how I describe it, although the photo he sent me of the public bar of the hotel bore no relation to the dive that I remembered! He reckons the photo of my mother is probably taken a couple of years earlier than that particular year. In all these things, he is no doubt correct. It makes you realise that what you remember is snapshots of a time only; as it were a video perhaps of a few minutes duration in a day long event – and that other people’s snapshots are not necessarily the same as yours.

  5. Sarah Nancollas says:

    I still carry these images of Lewis/ Harris in my head

    Sarah

    ________________________________

  6. adhocannie says:

    Sheena comments that there will be eleven blood relatives, and she’s right – I had forgotten myself!

  7. Jane Coleman says:

    Wonderful,only just read this after all this time. Rodel Hotel does exist, but not sure about that room. We stayed in our van in a nook on the driveway so didnt need its services. But do remember going into the reception area and peaking into the restaurant. It is still quite bleak and a bit spooky and to be honest not too inviting. i wish we had gone in for lunch now having read this!

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