The Grey Man




Each journey begins and also ends. The journey through life begins... and it ends.
Yet fresh journeys go forth. Father begets son who becomes in turn father who begets son.
Seek first to know your own journey's beginning and end; seek then the other journeys of which you are a close part.
But in this seeking know patience. Wear the traveller's cloak which shelters and permits you to endure.

Shades of Grey

"What can you see?"
Moonwatcher fights the urge to give the Howard Carter reply. Fails.
"Wonderful things!" he shouts.
"Eh?" the tone of the woman's voice, indicates that she's failed to pick up on his sarcasm.
"What do you see?" she repeats impatiently.

"Everywhere, the glint of gold!" he continues, safe in the knowledge he's beyond her reach, sight and throwing range.
"Stop mucking around. Can you see it?"
"Can't see a bloody thing at the moment - the torch's gone out!"

She looks up the length of the aluminium ladder which disappears into the dark opening of the loft, and wishes she could follow him up there, and search for herself. But she can't, so reluctantly accepts that her chances of finding the item she seeks, are little more than zero.
She knows his heart's not in it; that he hates going up into the loft. It must be years since he last ventured up there, and that was only to stow away more stuff that was cluttering the house - stuff that couldn't possibly be thrown out. He keeps on at her, that the tiny attic's crammed full, and that a major clearout's needed. He insists that, once he gets around to rigging an electric light up there, the long awaited clearance will begin; a project many years in the offing.
Nearly thirty years of married life have accumulated a great deal of stuff, most of it packed into the space her husband now explores - in total darkness, it seems.
"I'm going to put the kettle on." she shouts up in frustration.
"Good idea! I'll look for mummies."

Moonwatcher, alone in the dark, listens to the diminishing sound of footsteps on the stairs. He fiddles with the torch which finally flashes to life and temporarily blinding him because it was pointing directly into his face at the time. Blinking, he gradually manages to focus as and he sweeps the beam across the confined space of the loft.
The area is narrow and low. Headroom is limited to the stretch along the central section, where the high point of the roof runs the length of the terraced building. Along either side, and encroaching into the central area, are containers of every shape and size, piled up to the slanting roof, some perched precariously on top of, or against each other, and obviously deposited in a rush, in dim light or even darkness. Cobwebs indicate signs of non human life, and motes of dust sparkle in the torchlight.
The place is a shambles. To find anything here, will be next to impossible. He wants to give up now, to go back down the hatch behind him, descend the ladder, and convince his other half of the futility of the search. But, as the torch beam hovers over certain areas, chasing away shadows, his curiosity is fired, and he does indeed begin to see 'wonderful things'.

Above him, discernable shapes began begin to appear out of the gloom.
At first, startled, he thinks he sees a small figure, hanging from the rafters. Stepping forward, crouching to avoid the sharp prongs of the television aerial bolted to a wooden beam, he recognises one of the boys' old Cub Scout jerseys draped over a crosspiece. The sleeve still sports the various merit badges so proudly achieved. A red sleigh hangs alongside, with tufts of dried winter grass, gouged out from under the snow of years before. A Sea Cadet cap peers out from behind another roof beam, and a polystyrene surf board reminds him of a holiday in Cornwall, not so long ago - or perhaps it was. How time flies.
Now, captivated by what he's seeing, Moonwatcher creeps further into the loft, the torchlight picking out fresh treasures at every turn. An old train set. A baseball bat. A straw hat with lilac ribbon. A small bicycle wheel pokes out from behind two great stacks of boxes. Resting the torch on top of a carton, he manhandles the bike out of it's its hiding place, and feels a wave of nostalgia as a small, white sports bike emerges. A vivid memory of a Christmas morning. This very bike, a big ribbon tied around the dropped handlebars, being wheeled into the Living Room. The look of delight on his youngest son's face, as he set eyes on it for the first time.

Torch in hand again, the beam picks up out a primate's face in the corner staring at him from a corner. The ape looks too lifelike for comfort. But its discovery has Moonwatcher grabbing it in both hands, and stroking its soft fur.
He recalls the day he bought it. The exact day. The day his eldest was born.
He'd rushed around to the big toy shop in Glasgow's Partick and bought the biggest cuddly toy they had. How could it have ended up here in this cold, dark attic? As he cuddles Mickey, he feels a tinge of guilt and anger with himself.
Something dangling, catches his eye. A scale model of the Mir Space Station. Carefully constructed and hand painted, it's difficult to believe he'd made it himself. Assembled from a kit during a period of illness and long forgotten, it's been 'orbiting' up here in dark space all this time.
A guitar. At the touch of his thumb, the strings emit the same tuneless noise they've always done. Boxes of board games that once filled the room downstairs with laughter and fun, as the family sat around the table, throwing dice, moving counters, slaying dragons, counting toy money and making words from bits of plastic.
Lower down, piles of books. Some belonging belonged to the boys, but some are old textbooks which bring back memories of studying and exams. A 1950's 'Eagle Annual'; a quick flick through it's its pages reveals 'Dan Dare' in glossy colour. 'Norton's Star Atlas. Bronowski's 'The Ascent of Man'. Westerns. Old videos and tapes. More books have him delving deeper, until he finds himself on hands and knees pulling difficult to reach volumes from awkward recesses, revealing more boxes and other items.
It's at this point, as he lies prone among the rafters, clutter and cobwebs, arms outstretched trying to grab an elusive book, that he spots the corner of a small brown case. Manoeuvring the torch to into a position where he can see the case more clearly, he recognises it as one once used as an ambulance case. The case itself has a history, but he's intrigued that it has survived, and wonders what it may contain after all this time.
Gradually, he manages to get his fingers on the handle, and pulls it toward him. After a struggle, he finds himself cross-legged in the middle of the loft with the case at his feet, illuminated in the circle of light from the torch. It's old and scuffed. His name can still be made out faintly on one corner. The catches, once shiny and bright, are now corroded but snap open easily at the touch of his fingertips.
The lid swings open.

Maps and Books. That's what's inside. Some old maps and a small collection of books. Bit disappointing really. The map at the top, well worn, bears the title 'Merrick'. He opens it gingerly revealing it's its printed surface with detailed contours and symbols. Holding the torch close, he traces a fingertip carefully over hand-drawn dotted lines, recording a route he'd taken over the hills represented on the stiff paper.
Realisation dawns and he lays the map to one side, turning his attention to the rest of the case's contents. Three books. The first, its torn dust-cover still in place, shows the figure of a cyclist.
'The Highwayman'.
He opens the cover. A handwritten name, address and date stare at him: his name, an address long vacated, a year - 1971. A rubber stamp-mark in the centre of the page, shows the symbol of a bicycle with the word 'Wanlockhead'. He thumbs the pages, catching the a whiff of dampness from the paper. He loves the smell of books - old, new, it doesn't matter. Unlike computers, books have character, texture, smell, a life. They can talk to you. This book talks to Moonwatcher, as its pages fall open at a glossy black-and-white full-page photo of a face in a rock. The face of 'The Grey Man'. As he runs his finger over the photo, long-forgotten memories are triggered.

The two other books are quickly dug out of the case.
A thick red volume, old even before this edition was published. Its pages are crammed with descriptions of a land, little changed since it was written by a minister's hand nearly a hundred years before. It is illustrated with beautiful line drawings.
A small, dark blue, leather bound novel completes the trio. Heavy going 19th Century dialogue, in very small print. He remembers how hard he sought this book at the time, and how difficult it was to read. He had persevered because of the account it gave, albeit in the context of a fictitious tale, of the wild land that interested him and that he was keen to explore.

The torchlight flickers ominously, and dims as he explores the case further. He's surprised to find a small camera. The Kodak 'Instamatic' has long since become obsolete, its peculiar film cartridges are probably museum pieces in this day of mobile phone cameras and digital photography. He picks it up, examines it, clicks it open, closes it, presses the shutter release. It clicks, but it's filmless lens records nothing. Its legacy, however, stares up at him from the bottom of the case. A thin, black photo-album made from cheap plastic.
The failing torchlight picks up out the crude, crayon drawing of the Grey Man on the cover. Moonwatcher opens the album reverently, knowing that he's about to step into the past. Small square colour photos, each with white border and slotted into individual transparent pockets - four to a page - stare out up at him.
The first photo is of a young man riding a bicycle towards the camera. It's his thick, dark hair blowing in the breeze, that makes Moonwatcher smile. He raises his a hand to his head, runs his fingers through his hair. It's still as thick, but the dark has given way to a shade of grey - a very white shade of grey.
The photos deliver their stories. Old Mrs Young, standing outside Wanlockhead Hostel on a cold, snowy winter's day. Bill Houston and Piper at the stove in the hostel's kitchen. Davie Bell's Memorial on a hot summer's afternoon, with Moonwatcher's bike propped against its side.

His cramped, cross-legged position brings complaints from his knees, prompting him to painfully straighten his legs, as he cradles the album in his lap. His aching joints are a cruel reminder that his cycling days are long gone.
The photos continue.
His old blue tent at Glentrool Campsite. He looks around the gloom of the attic. That tent must still be here, somewhere. It served him well for many years:clandestine summer weekends with the girl he'd go on to marry; kids billet during family holidays; storage tent when he became a 'super camper' with a 'Volkswagen Camper', frame-tent and a portable telly.
A turn of the page presents him with a collection of black-and-white photos. The same tent under a small tree, in a stone enclosure. A wild land. Distant shots of the campsite, taken at from a height. The overcast threatening sky.
The loch. The burn. The mountains.

The Grey Man.

Moonwatcher leans back against a vertical wooden beam, and sighs, the old photo-album open at the a single picture of the rock face.
The torch dims further, flickers and fades. He sits in the darkness.
He never returned to the Grey Man. Life took over. Work, marriage, kids, age. He'd often thought about returning, was thinking about it now, but doubts whether he'd even make it up the side of Buchan Hill before his knees, or something more vital, gave out.
He sits quietly in the darkness and remembers.
A lone figure, draped in yellow oilskin cape, hunched over the handlebars of a heavily laden bicycle, struggling slowly against the driving rain and steep incline of a narrow, winding road.

Dedicated to the memory of Davie Bell
'The Highwayman'.

This account is based on memories of the time, the wonderful people I met and the places visited. I have tried to be as accurate as possible with names, locations and events. The exception being the girl 'Tricia' in the final chapter. She was a composite of every pretty young girl I lusted after in my youth. I suppose I still lust after them - but now I cant can't remember why! I suspect many of those mentioned are now gone, but if anyone recognises themselves, or someone they know, I'd love to hear from you.
The three books which I refer to are:
'The Highwayman'
David E. T. Bell
Published by The Ayrshire Post, 1971
'Highways and Byways in Galloway and Carrick'
Rev. C. H. Dick
First published 1916, Republished 1972 by MacMillan and Co.
'The Raiders' S. R. Crockett First published 1893, Republished 1954 by Collins
The wee quotes at the beginning of each chapter are from various sources including the 'I Ching' and 'Sun Tsu's Art of War'.
The quote in Chapter 4 comes From 'The Sunscreen Song' Baz Luhrman/Mary Schmich.
The 'Land of brown heath and shaggy wood', Glentrool, and The Cauldron of the Dungeon still exist, unspoilt, unchanged to this day. Bell, Dick and Crockett would have no difficulty in recognising their surroundings if they were to return tomorrow to this little known corner of Scotland. The Grey Man still looks out, serenely, wisely, over the hills as he has done for millennia - and will continue to do so long after we've gone.
Thanks to all who've taken the time to read this account of my youth. I hope some of you may be encouraged to visit the places mentioned one day, perhaps even gaze upon the face of The Grey Man.

     Thank you.
Bob Wilson. Fort William Jan 2006

Robert Wilson. 'The Safety Man' 1951-2010
"Only the rocks remain."

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Original story and material © 2005 Bob Wilson
Layout, editing and additional material © Dave Sloan 2005, 2012, 2016
'tachras' and 'Winding Yarn' © Dave Sloan 2005, 2012, 2016

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