The Grey Man




Peace lies not in the world... but in the man who walks the path.

The Mennock

The fire crackles and sparks as kindling catches and flames dance inside the firebox. An early riser, Moonwatcher's keen for a quick getaway. and, a After raking the dying embers and cinders, he has relit the stove. The fire crackles and sparks as kindling catches and flames dance inside the firebox. Closing the stove door he heads over to the deep ceramic sink to wash up. The ache in his legs from yesterday's long haul competes with a dull throb in his head and he's glad he didn't stay later at the club last night.
Closing the stove door he heads over to the deep ceramic sink to wash up. Forgoing a shave in cold water, he dons his clothes, dry now and still warm from hanging over the range all night.
Ready for the road, he picks up his gear and, after a last backward glance at the kitchen, walks quietly past a door from behind which he can hear the sound of snoring. Pausing at the tiny office, he picks up from the table the membership card bearing his name from the table, and checks it's been stamped before sliding it into a side pocket of his saddlebag. The rubber stamp depicts a bicycle with the name Wanlockhead and the height in feet above sea level. He's particularly pleased with it. Of his own design, he had it made and donated it to Mrs Young a couple of years ago. It immediately became the official stamp of the hostel. He opens the door and narrows his eyes as he steps out into the bright morning sunlight.

In the cycle shed, he has to move some of the bikes belonging to last night's late arrivals before he can gain access to his own. He wheels it out into the garden and starts to check it over before securing his bag. He gives particular attention to the brakes. The first part of his journey involves the rapid descent of the Mennock Pass, the twisting, hell-for-leather drop out of the village down towards sea level.

He walks the bike down through the deserted village, enjoying the crisp clear air and early morning birdsong; the steady clicking of the bike's freewheel, the only man-made intrusion. Walking helps get the stiffness out of his legs, and by the time he reaches the Wanlockhead signpost at the south end of the village, he's ready to ride. The bike is heavy. He has ridden the Mennock before, but never with so much baggage: two heavy panniers over the back wheels, a bulky saddlebag on top, and various other bits of kit taped or strapped to the frame. He knows she'll be difficult to handle on the bends.
As he mounts and checks the brake levers, his stomach gives way to a churning sensation. begins to churn. Nerves, lack of breakfast, or perhaps both. Slipping his toe into the pedal clip he pushes off and cycles slowly along the road.

The bicycle picks up speed as gravity pulls it down the steepening incline. Pedalling stops, and the rider adopts a head down position over the dropped handlebars; all attention focussed on controlling the machine as the freewheel whirrs hysterically. The hills close in as rider and machine are drawn faster and faster into the chasm.

Mennock Cross 1

The Mennock consists of a series of very steep, sharp bends linked by equally steep straight stretches, on which a bicycle can build up tremendous speed. Hurtling down the straights is exhilarating, but, at the end of each, there are the bends to contend with and they test the 'bottle' of the most experienced cyclist.
The first bend comes up fast, and first pressure is applied to the brake levers. Nothing happens! The combined weight and speed of the bike prove to be too much. Full pressure, and the rubber brake blocks squeal like banshees as they are forced against the steel rims of the wheels, friction burning off the rubber and causing the whole bike to judder as the rider leans it into the sharp curve.
For the few seconds available to prepare for the next bend, the speed is excessive. No time to think now. Pure instinct, experience, skill and luck. The wind whips through his hair and rushes past his ears, his heart is pounding, his knuckles white on brake levers squeezed tight against the handlebars.The bike takes the bend but runs wide, crossing over on to the wrong side, spraying up loose gravel along the road's edge. Moonwatcher feels the tyres lose traction for a moment; feels a lead weight hit the base of his stomach. Adrenaline surges through his system as he gets the bike on an even keel, then hammers it into the next straight stretch.

As bike and rider streak down the pass at break-neck speed, stray thoughts enter his mind. Sinister little thoughts. Thoughts that must immediately be banished from whence they came, lest they take control and initiate a panic with possible tragic consequences. Thoughts like 'What if the front tyre punctures?' or 'What if a brake cable snaps, the freewheel seizes, a wheel buckles, or ...'
The sheep sitting in the middle of the road, as the bike sweeps out of a blind curve, shows not the least concern as it chomps grass and stares defiantly at the oncoming projectile. Moonwatcher narrowly avoids a head on collision, which would have made a deep impression on its mind, to say nothing of his own. The animal remains in exactly the same position, even after the left pannier bag brushes a horn. The bike remains intact, all it's its components working in harmony. As it shoots out of the final bend a loud 'Yeeehah!' echoes through the pass.

He halts a short distance after the final bend, pats the handlebars appreciatively, and blows out a long whistling breath as he sits astride the machine. A few minutes pass before he dismounts. Long enough for his pulse to settle down and his right knee to stop trembling.
Wheeling the bike onto the verge, he lays it down gently on its side, kneels down and examines the brake blocks. The wear caused by the descent is obvious. Standing up, he looks back up the pass, and begins to walk towards the bend from which he has just emerged.
The peace and beauty of the Mennock is awesome on this lovely summer morning. The recent thrill of danger serving serves to heighten his senses, and his appreciation of the scene. After the wind and rain of the previous day, this one promises to be warm and sunny. The sky is blue, and the air is warming as the sun climbs higher. High above him, a large bird of prey circles. Probably a buzzard. Sheep baa in the distance, and he smiles as he thinks of the one he met on the way down.

Mennock Cross 2

At the foot of the slope he starts to scan the far side verge. A small burn gurgles between the edge of the road and his point of interest. Near the bend, he spots what he's looking for, and steps off the road, over the burn, and on to the verge.
There on the grass lies the shape of a cross. Though marked by out in stones, it is overlooked by most travellers. The stones - none bigger than a large grapefruit - have been gathered from the surrounding area, and placed in two intersecting lines on the ground. The cross has been there for as long as folk can remember.
Stories as to its purpose vary, but the most enduring tells that it was placed as a memorial to a district nurse, who came down the Mennock on her bike many years previously. On a mission of mercy, one would like to think. The story goes that she failed to take the final bend, was thrown from her bike, and died at this spot. Whatever the truth, the simple stone symbol endures.
Moonwatcher retrieves his bike and returns to the spot, setting sets up his camp stove by the cross, and preparing prepares a 'drum-up'. A tin mug, filled with water from the burn, is soon steaming on the wee stove. With the addition of a spoonful of coffee and some powdered milk, it is transformed into a welcome brew. A chunk of cheese, crudely cut with a Swiss army knife and slotted between two slices of dry white bread, completes the open air breakfast.
As he sits, cross legged, chewing, and sipping from the hot mug, he admires the scene before him, the valley of the Mennock, and feels utter contentment.

On such a perfect day the miles quickly disappear beneath the wheels, as he heads west along the valley of the Nith, on the road to Ayr. Short sleeved in the warm sun, it's good to be free of the waterproofs. The oilskin cape is rolled up and relegated to the top of the saddlebag.
A brief stop at Sanquhar (pronounced Sanker) aquaints him with some of the history of the village. Boasting the oldest Post Office in Britain, dating back to 1712, Sanquhar was also the scene of the 'Declaration of Sanquhar'. As he stands at the Old Tolbooth, his bike propped against its weathered stone for a photograph, Moonwatcher contemplates reflects on the events that occurred here nearly 300 years earlier.
Here in 1680, schoolteacher Richard Cameron raised a rebellion against King Charles II. With a small band of armed men he 'declared war' on the king. Fuelled by the political and religious fervour of the time, Cameron's men had close ties with the Covenanters, Presbyterian radicals who had been fighting their own cause for years. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the situation, it led to what was to become became known as 'The Killing Years', with the rebels persecuted and their supporters hunted down, shot, hanged, drowned or imprisoned. Ultimately, though he himself was killed, Cameron's men would become the 'Cameronians', one of Scotland's greatest military regiments.

The mining Town of New Cumnock provides a lunch stop. Moonwatcher, bike chained to a drainpipe outside the door, sits on a barstool in the Castle Hotel tucking into steak pie and a pint of flat beer. But it's a short halt, rushed, and indigestion proves troublesome on the remaining miles to Ayr.
In the 'Auld Toon', Rabbie looks down on him, as he sweeps around and past the statue in 'Burn's Statue Square'. He resists the temptation of another pub stop at the Wallace Tower Bar, to which old friends, the a husband and wife team, have moved from the now closed Seven Stars across the road. Instead he follows the flow of traffic down the busy main street, past the Tam o'Shanter Museum. The shop he's looking for is on the corner just ahead. He glances at his watch. It's 4.55pm.
"Where has the time gone?" he mutters to himself, as he props his bike up against a lamppost.
The bell tinkles above the door of the tobacconist's, announcing his entry, and bringing a bald, bespectacled gent to the counter from the back room. The air is heavy with the pungent aroma of tobacco. Glass cases are festooned with pipes, lighters and smoking paraphernalia. Behind the counter, jars filled with various types of weed, line the shelves.
"Hello, can I help you?" the man behind the counter asks, snatching an agitated look at his watch, and obviously keen to close up for the day.
"Eh. I'd like to buy I a pipe." says Moonwatcher.
"A present for my uncle." he lies.
After all, what would a young guy in his early twenties be doing smoking a pipe? Decidedly uncool.
"Certainly. What have you in mind?"
Moonwatcher follows the man's gaze down to the glass counter and surveys the rows of pipes. There are a lot to choose from. Black ones and brown, straight and bent. Some are carved, others smooth and shiny. A small prices tag is attached to each one but too small to be read without close scrutiny. The tobacconist stoops down behind the counter for a moment and removes a tray from the display.
"If you're looking for a basic, plain pipe, I'd recommend this one."
He removes a brown, wooden straight specimen and offers it for examination.
"It's a plain briar."
As Moonwatcher turns it in his fingers, he resists the impulse to stick it in his mouth and do an Eric Morecambe impersonation.
"On the other hand, your uncle may prefer something a little more elaborate."
Straight faced, he hands over a curved meerschaum that would not have looked out of place between the teeth of Sherlock himself.
"I don't think so." smiles Moonwatcher, replacing the meerschaum on the counter. He sees that the tag on the briar is well within what he's prepared to pay.
"I think this one'll do okay." he adds.
The tobacconist returns the meerschaum to its place, never having expected a sale in that direction. He closes the cabinet and begins to wrap Moonwatcher's choice in tissue paper.
"Sorry?" says Moonwatcher, distracted by a group of lads outside the window, who are eyeing up his bike.
"Do you wish to buy tobacco?" asks the man, impatiently.
"Oh yes, of course." The lads move on and Moonwatcher returns his attention to the counter.
"What type does your uncle smoke?"
"Uncle? Oh yeah, him. Eh... Condor." He is pleased to have remembered the name of a pipe tobacco.
"Flake, bar or ready rubbed?" asks the tobacconist.
A random choice is called for.
"Oh... Eh, ready rubbed'll do."

Out in the street Moonwatcher stows his purchases into his saddlebag and begins to wheel the bulky bike along the pavement, dodging Saturday shoppers eager to catch the shops before closing time.
As he passes the 'Tam o' Shanter Museum', the faces of Souter Johnnie and Tam laugh down at him. This old building, once an eighteenth century brewing house, is reputed to be the scene of the start of Tam's wild ride, described in Burn's poem. It's while looking up at the grinning figureheads, that he realises the sky has become overcast and heavy looking. He mounts up and heads south out of the town.
But not for him a ride to the Alloway Kirk, or over the Auld Brig. No, there'll be no Cutty Sark chasing him or his mount out of the town. His destination, the family caravan, lies some 12 miles down the coast road in the direction of Maybole. Although he has made no firm commitment, he had led them to expect himself, sometime over the weekend. Tired legs slow him down as he pedals past Belleisle Park, and a few spots of rain have turn his thoughts turning to the waterproof cape again.

The sudden deflation of his back tyre brings him to an abrupt halt. Perhaps Cutty Sark followed him after all!

With the bike leaning against the high stone wall of Belleisle's gardens, Moonwatcher assesses the damage. The back tyre is as flat as a pancake. No option but to turn the bike upside down. To do that all the gear has to be removed. Panniers and saddlebag are unstrapped, and stacked against the wall. With the bike upturned, he slowly rotates the airless wheel, easily finding the source of the problem - a nail embedded in the thick rubber.
With the droplets of rain becoming more persistent, the tool kit is hurriedly unrolled on the pavement and tyre levers quickly used to prise the nailed section of tyre clear of the rim, exposing the underlying punctured inner tube. The hole is quickly identified by pumping a little air into the tube and smearing spittle over the affected area of rubber, creating tell-tale air bubbles at the point of entry. Dry off, coat with rubber solution, wait until tacky, appy apply a patch, a dusting of chalk and bingo! Puncture repaired.
He's just pulling the bent nail from the tyre when the drizzle turn turns to proper rain. As he's snapping the tyre back on to the rim he hears a car horn behind him, but thinks nothing of it. He'd like to give the patch a little longer to set before pumping up the tyre but with the weather deteriorating he decides to take a chance.

Just as he's about to start pumping, he becomes aware of a vehicle drawing up alongside and a familiar voice.
"You looking for a lift young man?"
He looks round to see a black London cab, and, leaning from its wound-down window, the welcome face of 'John the Taxi'.

"I sure am." he beams.

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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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