One Christmas Eve night, I must have been about seven or eight, young enough to be staying awake in hopes of glimpsing Santa, some relative stumbled into my room.
Years later I brought Tess home to meet my mother, after the Scottish National Trust took over the castle and Mother was living in the wee flat above the kitchens. For a laugh we bought tickets for the tour of the main house. The wing where my brothers and I had our rooms is now done up as it was in the 1700s, my bedroom bears an oak panelled four poster bed and bone china chamberpot which gave Tess the giggles. In my day, it was a mad combination of scuffed ancient family furniture and Star Wars posters. The guide actually pointed out an area of the floor that had been repaired, and I whispered that it was because I’d spilled some chemical from the kind of chemistry set they still trusted kids with in the eighties.
Anyway, my bed at that time wasn’t the fancy one that’s on display now, but a similarly heavy, giant one, with dusty curtains I was always afraid to close for some reason. I was huddled under the covers – a standard duvet set, with boats on it, I think – shining my torch into all the nooks and crannies of the high ceilings and huge fireplace, when the door opened. It wasn’t Santa, but some distant cousin, with wild white hair, a red face of broken capillaries, and a mystifyingly holey jumper over his family kilt.
He hesitated in the doorway, the light from the hallway illuminating his baffled expression, and for a horrible moment I thought he was going to pee on my bedroom floor. Then he saw me, and lurched over to the bed. He sat down, ice clinking in his whisky glass and told me the story of Charlie MacDonald.
The youngest son of the family at the time, he was just fourteen when he ran away to join the Jacobite army, and barely sixteen when he was dragged home by some local men after Culloden, his right leg a bloody stump, his left eye gouged out by a Redcoat sword. He was taken up to his bedroom – my bedroom – and tended to by his mother and the local healer, but his leg had gone septic (or at least what we’d now understand as septic). For weeks he lingered in agony as the infection seeped slowly, inexorably, into his bloodstream. Then one night, he summoned every ounce of the strength he had left, dragged himself from the bed and across the floor, then toppled himself from the window.
“A true hero never dies in bed,” the relative slurred mournfully, then patted my knee and stumbled off, leaving me alone in the darkness.
I wasn’t afraid.
It was a relief, if anything, to understand the thud, the laborious scrape, the squeak of the window, that I had awoken to time after time. So often, in fact, that I just accepted it, as anyone does the creaks and groans of their home settling. It was just part of the landscape of my childhood.
Charlie never meant me any harm, I doubt he realised I was there. A few times, after that Christmas, when I woke and I sensed he was there, sometimes even before I heard the thud, I’d whisper to him. Tell him I was Fergus, that I thought he was brave, that he was welcome to share my bedroom if he wanted. But he never responded, and as the years went by I forgot about him, went back to hearing-but-not-hearing those odd sounds on certain nights.
When my father died, I searched the castle for his presence, for any sense that he was still there in some way like Charlie was. For days I roamed ancient stone corridors, climbed over abandoned furniture covered in thick dust, forced open doors that shrieked with decades of disuse. Unshed tears formed a hard lump in my throat, at times I remember feeling that I might choke, might be suffocated by the grief I refused to acknowledge until I was absolutely positive that he was 100% gone.
I found nothing. It was months later that it occurred to me that I sensed Charlie in our bedroom, where he died. If anything remained of Father, it would be in the prison where he died.