For The Love Of Malt
For the love of whisky, Bob Carter had travelled the four hundred wearisome miles from urban Yorkshire to make his annual pilgrimage to the land of uisge beatha – a journey first made longer ago than he sometimes cared to remember. He looked forward to his holiday all year, for the grandeur of loch and mountain, the glorious colours and untainted air were still as exotic to him as the first time he had encountered them. His two weeks away from the mill were to be spent exploring the distilleries of the Northern Highlands. There were not many of them, and the visitor facilities were sometimes a little sparse, but they covered a huge area. When he reached an out-of-the-way distillery that produced an obscure malt, Bob felt like a jungle adventurer who had uncovered an overgrown lost city.
For the love of Bob, Evelyn Carter had trailed after her husband for twenty-seven years. She had endured Scottish rain and dreamed of Spanish sunshine; she had been seasick too many times on that dreadful ferry to Islay; she had stood on the fringe of gatherings where Bob’s fellow fanatics sniffed and slurped and found aromas in their glasses she could not discern at all. To Evelyn, whisky was whisky. His obsession had once amused her: his books, his bottles, his expression of dreamy-eyed awe when he nosed a new discovery. Now she tolerated it with quiet stoicism.
They had met at the mill when she had been a very junior typist and he an apprentice mechanic, unfailingly cheerful and somehow dapper despite being short, skinny and sporting ginger hair so curly it could never be tamed. Everyone liked Bob. The older women in the typing pool saw the cheeky young boy he had been not many years earlier; the younger ones saw a good-natured bundle of energy whose grin promised fun without threat. He invited her to the Locarno, where he danced with a flamboyance and a small man’s energy that left her with only two choices: run away or join in. She soon overcame her embarrassment and enjoyed herself. They married a year later and honeymooned in Speyside: “The best place in the world,” he told her. The sun shone. Every day she enjoyed his passion for all things whisky – as she enjoyed everything about him – because every night his passion for her was even greater.
Now they were in Tain, at the beginning of their second week’s holiday, and the rain was coming down in a steady, spiteful, determined drizzle that she had found only in Scotland. The one Scots word she knew was dreich. Tain could be charming, but in the rain it was just another miserable small town battered by a wind that had gathered pace while crossing the North Sea. At least they were in an hotel. After an Alness bed and breakfast which smelled of damp and cats, scrutinised by a taciturn landlady who, Evelyn suspected, was a founder member of Settler Watch, she finally rebelled and demanded comfort for her next two nights, whatever the cost. Bob gave in without a murmur, filled with excitement at his plans for the following day.
“Glenmorangie tomorrow!” he informed her, checking the entry in a well-thumbed edition of Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion. “They’ve got the highest stills there, you know.” She knew. She even knew that they were sixteen feet ten-and-a-quarter inches tall. That quarter-inch was very important. “And Balblair after that. Brilliant!”
After breakfast, when she refused to accompany him, his hurt turned to concern. He offered to stay with her, but she urged him to stick to his plans. He left unwillingly, without the usual spring in his step, causing pangs of guilt to pierce Evelyn. She fought them off with effort; all she wanted was to be alone.
Eventually, she enjoyed her morning. Rain was fine when it was outside, battering the windows of a cosy, well-lit residents’ lounge. She found a book and read without interruption – a luxury Bob’s restless energy rarely allowed. She ate lunch in the hotel restaurant, returned with her book to the lounge and was dismayed to find it already occupied.
He was in his forties, she estimated, dressed casually, with a pleasant, puckish face topped by thick, sleek hair streaked grey at the temples. He nodded to her over his newspaper then returned to his reading. His fingers, she noticed, were long and slim, like the rest of him. She seated herself at the opposite end of the room but could not concentrate on her book. The plot, which had engrossed her totally, now seemed weak and shallow. She was on the point of giving up when a rustling of newsprint caused her to look up.
“I don’t believe it,” he said, folding up his paper. “The rain’s stopped and – yes, there it is – the sun’s out!”
Evelyn returned his smile cautiously, although she did not venture a reply. The man put his paper to one side.
“Jack Cowan’s the name,” he announced. His voice was confident, his accent well-to-do. “And no lover of rain.”
Evelyn smiled again. “Then you’re in the wrong place.”
“You needn’t tell me that.” Jack smiled broadly, encouraged by her response. “I’m up here four or five times a year. Sometimes I think I should pack a wetsuit instead of a business suit.”
He was something to do with computers – Evelyn never quite understood what – and was to fly back to London next morning after five days of troubleshooting in the Highlands. Flying in bad weather was no fun, he told Evelyn, who had never flown at all, and went on to describe one particularly bumpy trip between Boston and New York when it seemed that half the passengers had been carried from the plane, himself among them. His tale, told straight-faced and peppered with self-deprecating humour, had her in fits of laughter. He was good company.
At the conclusion of another anecdote, this time concerning a boat trip between St Petersburg and Helsinki which featured copious amounts of vodka, he asked if she would like a drink.
“I don’t think so,” Evelyn replied, suddenly cautious again.
“It’s purely selfish,” Jack told her. “There’s nothing boosts a man’s ego more than walking into a bar with an attractive woman on his arm.”
Evelyn was dumbfounded. She knew she looked good for her age, but she was a mother of two and nearly fifty, yet here was a stranger trying to pick her up! Despite herself, she giggled as stupidly as any teenager at her first disco. How could she resist?
Jack disliked whisky, “and I’ve never been able to look at vodka since that damned boat”, so his tipple was brandy. Evelyn, who already felt a little drunk, favoured orange juice. They sat together by the window, watching the sun gain strength, and she became an audience of one for tales she was certain had been polished and lengthened over the years. Whatever, they were still good tales. Whenever he tried to learn a little more about her she steered the conversation back to his exploits.
The rain came on again around five o’clock, causing umbrellas to blossom in the street and bringing an influx of wet tourists into the bar.
“Do you have any plans for tonight?” he asked. Evelyn had known the question must come, yet she was still left tongue-tied. “There’s a great restaurant not far away. And there’s a dance we could go to afterwards – all jigs and reels, tartan and accordions. If…”
“Evelyn! There you are!”
Bob waved from across the bar and trotted towards them, rain still dripping from his waterproofs. When he reached the table he beamed good-naturedly and looked from one to the other.
“This is Jack Cowan,” she told him. “He’s here on business.” She looked to Jack. When she spoke, her voice shook slightly. “This is Bob, my husband.”
Jack returned Bob’s broad smile. “Pleased to meet you, Bob, but I’m afraid I must be going. Things to do, people to see.” He raised his glass to Evelyn and finished the last of his brandy. “It was good to meet you, too. Enjoy yourselves tonight.” He shook her hand, left the bar, and Bob filled the vacated seat.
“I missed you, Evie,” he told her. Evelyn smiled, unable to speak, while Bob patted the pockets of his coat. He produced a small package. “I bought you this.”
Inside the box was an intricate silver ring. She slipped it on to her finger, tears in her eyes.
“There’s no need for that, lass.”
“I love you, Bob.”
“I love you too, Evie.”
She hugged him tightly, speechless again, as her tears fell faster. Part of her was comforted and relieved that she was again in his arms; part of her rejoiced in the knowledge of Jack’s business card, hidden deep inside her handbag.
For The Love Of Malt was the title set in a competition run by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society