Kilchurn Castle, Loch Awe, Scotland.
(Photo curtesy of Google)
The mosquitoes, almost as high as we are, buzzed from the heat, warm cider and an easy promise of fresh, young blood, hang thickly on our scent, as we forge our precarious, downward decent to the gentle lapping shores of Loch Awe.
The placid, glassy waters are deceptive. We are all warned of it's icy depths, cautioned not to swim there, leastwise never alone. But on blisteringly hot afternoons it's lure proves irresistible, and we frequently spend an hour or two in between a split shift, splashing and cooling off together in it's crystal clear body.
Swimming is not our aim tonight.
Doogie the hotel cat dogs our trail, his ears alert, and with his poker tail thrust loftily high, he pads gracefully behind, following us down on our single-file mission along the softly-shadowed, moon-glown path. We are not quiet on our quest; shrieks, jibes and laughter shake the midnight air, scaring the odd bird to flight, and doubtlessly scattering countless armies of other unseen creatures away.
Pausing to suck on his inhaler, Fat Kenny (the trainee pastry chef ) entreats us to hold up some, that he might catch his breath, and Simon (the porter) slows down the lead, snatching the opportunity to slap some midgies from the nape of his neck. I (the waitress) fail to brake in time, and slip with a squeal into Amy (my fellow waitress), almost felling her. Lightening quick, good old Will (the trainee woodsman, local heart throb, and my current beau) shoots up a steadying arm to balance us, chuckling over my ridiculously impracticable high heels. I give him a mock swat as we trudge ahead.
I tell him he's a "tuchter", lacking sophistication, with no idea over how us fashionable City girls are obliged to dress. He simply shrugs, smiling, twining his hand in mine.
We've been seeing each other for almost a month now, and other than an odd chaste peck on the cheek, he still hasn't kissed me. I'm on the verge of pulling his sister aside soon, to seek advice. She's older, and married, working at the bakery next door to the hotel, which is how she and I first met. We'd instantly hit it off, and before long were often watching movies together at her home, whilst her hubby worked the night shift down at the docks, in Oban. Will had rode up on his motorbike one evening, then took to calling round more. Shy, it took him a couple of weeks to ask me out on a date of our own. His sister Meg still teases him over that.
Clutching our flashlights, the five of us pick our way towards the tethered rowboat. It's a tight squeeze, us girls sit at the end opposite fat Kenny to level the boat. Will pushes off, and jumps aboard to pair Simon as oarsman. Doogie glares out from the sands, waving us off with a spiked, bristling tail.
Steadily rowing in tandem, both the lads glide us slowly towards the derelict shell of Kilchurn Castle, sitting eerily abandoned on it's own deserted island, with the vast moat of Loch Awe for protection.
We don't expect the locked chains and danger warning signs that greet us. The whole place is sealed off. "Unsafe", "Keep Out" is printed across every boarded up entrance.
Disappointed? No. Challenged? Of course!
Will scales a crumbling wall, and I throw my shoes up for him to catch. Fat Kenny offers me his broad back, and I happily hitch a piggy-back. He now grabs my feet, telling me to straighten my legs and to stand, as Will reaches over to grasp my outstretched hands. With Fat Kenny guiding my bare toes to the rough boulder wall, I seek and find first one foothold, then a second, hoisting myself up further and closer to the top. Will's vice like grip is wrenching my wrist at the (it's not an ankle, I don't know the god dammed name for it) socket, and I lose a footing..
So I'm stuck dangling, yelling blue murder, as Amy on the ground tries to stop giggling long enough to assure me my frock should provide a sound enough parachute, should I drop. I tell Fat Kenny he'll go stone blind if he doesn't cover his eyes right now, and feel my hands almost wrenched from my arms as Will redoubles his effort to winch me higher - earnestly howling now, I miraculously RUN up the remaining wall, bum tilted high, scraping both forearms in my haste to breach the parapet. Hiked to roll and sit atop the wall, I swing my legs round and over, and am hugely relieved to find a stout ledge running mid way all along the other side. A small scramble later, and not a little worse for the wear, the safety of a welcome flat earth is soon beneath my feet.
Amy comes next, and she aces it. No cuts or bruises, her Doc Martin boots and sturdy denim jacket provides ample protection against the climb. Poor Fat Kenny tries, pulling a boulder or two down with him. It's not looking good. He and Simon confer. They call out, saying they'll walk the perimeter in search of an easier entry, to hopefully meet us inside.
It's spooky and dark in here, isolated, dank and damp. So naturally, we decide to split up and explore alone - as you do. (Gulp.)
Clutching my torch tightly, I set off to climb the spiral steps leading up to a gaping black cavern. I tread carefully, not all the steps are stable, some have under-ledges where the stone has dropped or worn away. Mid way up my blood freezes. I barely hear the low, menacing hisssssssssss before, shooting out from under the stair, something cold and hard clamps fiercly around my ankle. A sharp pinch jolts every nerve ending alive, another stab sends my heart sky-rocketing out of my throat, I let go an ear-shattering, endless scream from way down in the deepest depths of my belly.. the Mummy/Werewolf/Headless Horseman/Vampire/Flesh-Eating Zombie has finally come to get me
Good old Will reaches me first, Amy is hot in pursuit behind. I'm not listening.
"It's okay, calm down - look - it's a goose, it's just a silly wee goose!" Heart jack-hammering, I take his word for it, the hissing creature from hell is taking bites out of my other ankle now. Time to call it a day, we inch rapidly backwards as fast as we can, although chased by the attacking goose, we are also acutely aware that this set of stairs is most likely to collapse beneath our feet at any God given step.
Oddly enough, it doesn't take us near as long to scale over the wall this second time around. Alarmed, Simon and Fat Kenny have already legged it back to where they left us, and as we all fall into each others arms, the ruffled goose still honking loud behind the castle wall, we are laughing so hard the tears start to spill.
Back in the boat, mid-way to shore, a rumble of thunder precedes a splat or two of rain, and a slight breeze picks up to ruffle our hair. Thankfully, the wind is with us to speed us along, and we manage to alight before the storm truly hits. Once docked, we sprint in the quickening rain, running soaked, drenched now, heading for the shelter and safety of our (if not Will's) hotel. We are not - officially - allowed to take visitors back with us, but as Will is part of our adventure tonight, we nominate him as an honorary member of staff, and smuggle him in through the back door entrance, loudly shooshing and hushing each other up as we go, trying hard not to waken the dreaded house-Keeper, Mrs. Grace, the she-who-must-not-be-disturbed-at-all-costs-lest-she-eat-you-up-and-spit-you-out, as we giddily tumble indoors and down into the kitchen.
Toweled dry, we sit around the table sipping our steaming mugs of comforting hot chocolate, exchanging banter and listening to the rain. Tired now, and with our duties soon calling, we wind down to face the coming day. The storm seems to be passing as quickly as it sprung, just a drizzle now remains. Draining her mug, Amy takes her leave, Fat Kevin and Simon soon follow on. Will too has work come the morn, I walk him to the door.
Almost gone, he turns, and tilts his head down, stroking my face, he leans in closer - and gently turning my legs to water, he sweeps me up into that first ever, much longed for, full, deeeeeep smooch.