Saturday, June 24, 2006


The three little old ladies sitting near us in the small café drank their tea, while speaking and laughing in loud voices. A man had ordered coffee and a piece of Sara’s baking, then left without paying. When he returned he faced Sara’s wrath. Not a local, but like us, passing through to the highlands. Then we caught snippets of family news, a son or grandson at university and so on.

Balltater sits up against craggy mountains where the Dee cascades out of the hills, widens and continues its path down a long beautiful valley to Aberdeen and the sea. A few intrepid commuters who don’t mind the drive down the one-hour-plus winding road to Aberdeen live here. Down the road is a small deli shop with organic vegetables and specialty items. Then there are trinket shops with expensive woollens and shops with hiking gear, mostly for tourists.

You can tell you’re not in Aberdeen by an awareness in people’s eyes, less preoccupied in solving an impossible problem. Also the relaxed way they drive. In the city, folk don’t have time to be courteous. Too much needs to be done, like now. You’d better wait for the green crossing-light if you don’t want to be honked at. Or mowed down.

In Ballater, we see people content with the life they lead, and where they are. Few have heard of Tolstoy or read “War and Peace.” But then they don’t have the constant urge to be somewhere else or to become something.

Sara and Morris run the small café; Sara bakes all that’s in the display case, lemon pies, a bready cake with raisins and fruit, treacle pie and others. Drinking the tea Amber and I feel new strength after the anxious drive from Aberdeen down the narrow winding road, and we’re ready for the leg over the mountains to Braemar and down into the lowlands, and to Scone for the weekend visit with my mother.

“Do you want a greenhouse?” Sara asks.

“Actually I’m looking for one,” I say. “We’re renting a house with a large vegetable garden near Aberdeen.”

“A man came in saying he wanted to get rid of his, so I told him I’d ask around.”

She hands me a slip of paper with the address: Drumouch Cottage, Invercauld Road. I stare at the paper. No street number. The postman must know the name of every house in the town.

Sara smiles, “You take that road and turn left at the kirk. The house is down the road on the right.”

“What is his name?”

“I don’t know.”

As we get up to leave, I ask Morris, “What do you think of the Aberdeen bypass?”

He laughs. “It’s a running joke as the longest debated route in UK history. They’ve been talking about it for over fifty years now.”

After saying good-bye to Sara and promising to be back soon, we drive down the road, turn left at the kirk – a reddish granite church with a tall steeple. Amber scans the names posted near the doorway to each house while I make sure I don’t hit any cars parked on the two lane road. We find it, and ring the doorbell, but no one replies.

Realizing this isn’t Texas, and we won’t get shot by walking into the back yard, we go through a back gate and find a long grassy space with the greenhouse plopped in the middle – a small generic structure such as you could buy in a garden store. Inside, storage boxes were stacked up, but nothing grew or had grown there recently. The walls had a couple of broken plates that one might repair.

Amber wanted to return to Sara and Morris to get their phone, so we might ask after the greenhouse, but I was ready to move on with our trip. The craggy hills above beckoned us, the total wilderness of nature untouched by human hand.

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