Characters from the television series Highlander are owned by Panzer-Davis
productions. I own nothing.
"Dr Johnson has allowed the peculiar merit of breakfast in Scotland."
The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.
Skeins of fog blew tattered across the medieval shop frontages. In the dark he could see twenty yards, no more, and his city shoes slipped on the cobbles. It was late, the shops were closed, and only the lights of a single, empty burger bar broke the darkness. Below him on Hunter Square a lone piper played on - Flowers of the Forest, what else, dropped piece-meal and ungodly into the lull between gusts of wind. He was cold, collar pulled up round his ears, hands deep in his pockets, his ears prickling with chill and his toes damp.
Not lost, but aimless, a wandering fool in search of a bed for the night; a bar, or a friendly face in this land of barley broth and hairy beasts and rain on parchment, blurring azure paint into grief -
St. Giles loomed out of the mist heavy with fretwork and a promise of shelter. He stumbled into the porch with the wind at his back, rain shattering on the garbardine of a coat meant for Mediterranean showers and not Scottish winters.
Heart of Lothian, this place. He had forgotten how much he hated the cold. His nose was burning, and his fingers were stiff, and if he ever found any the beer would be thin. They made soup of potatoes in Scotland, and meal. He remembered it with a shudder that was half unwelcome flashback and half convulsive shiver, brushed by memories as old as the stones of the cathedral. Older.
History was gone in the blink of an eye. He blew on his fingers, and looked up. Green baize notice board with photocopied flyers, stone bench, worn sisal carpet, and the murmur of voices from the cathedral itself. The bells were tolling. Here, in the shelter of the porch, they sounded cold and clear and for a moment they spoke to him not of advent but of sanctuary, and the beat at the base of his spine was not presence but stuck cast steel.
Then it was presence, urgent as now, familiar as the hilt of a sword in his hand. His heart knew it before he, holding him sealed in place when every instinct called for flight. The door opened: shock flushed his skin without warming. He was tongue-tied and heavy limbed and without his control he was, he knew it, smiling, with the raindrops cold on his skin and dripping down the back of his neck.
Duncan MacLeod. Looking good, dressed for the weather in a down jacket and a pair of sturdy boots, with a summer tan worn into winter that suggested he hadn't been spending all his time under the pale sun of a Scottish sky. Stopped in the doorway with his eyes wide and the start of a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth as if old friends tumbled out of the storm every day of the week, and were welcome.
He'd stayed silent too long. He opened his mouth to say, hello, good to see you again, how are you? - I must go - and instead it was Duncan who was walking towards him with his hands stretched out and his face brightening, as if they were friends, as if all the story between them was nothing but myth.
"Suppose we are strangers," Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod said, urgent and soft with the gentle burr of a Highland accent stronger under the words here on his native soil. "Suppose we meet here, now."
Close, he smelt of candle wax and oranges, and there were voices and footsteps beyond the door where the carolers said their goodbyes.
"Suppose I say to you, foul night, no? - and you say, yes, and I say -"
Duncan's hand on his shoulder, turning him round, they were walking.
"There's a bar just down High Street with a blaze to warm your bones, and you say -"
Wind blew away the rest of his words, pouncing around the corner of the porch with freezing malice.
But Duncan did not let go, and did not stop talking, propelling the pair of them bent into it. Methos caught, "Ale. Soup. Storm -" Rain stung his face, but Duncan's hand on his shoulder was not warm but hot and would not let go.
"Away the street -"
They stumbled through a doorway in a welter of cold and sleet. A small bar with an Art-Deco finish like so many of the bars in this city, glass glinting cleaner among mahogany than ever it did when the lawyers breakfasted on oysters and port among the drovers up from the south. Smell of woodsmoke and wet coats and spilled beer, fairy lights strung among the carvings.
"And you will take your coat off - sit down, man, you're half frozen!"
He was. He did sit down, ease himself out of the wet garbardine folds, and by the time he had there was a pint and a whisky chaser sitting on the table in front of him and Duncan opposite, stretching his legs to the fire in the tiled hearth.
"Or perhaps not strangers but men who knew each other once, a long time ago. Slainte," Duncan said, and raised his glass. He was smiling. "I was thinking of you, tonight," he said. "And the wind blew you here. Although we are almost strangers: I will smile at you over the whisky, and think, we might be friends, this man and I, although you will know different."
"MacLeod. Of the Clan of that name, although that's not something I lay claim to often, here in the lowlands. Yourself?"
He waited, but Methos could not for a moment recall who he was, although the name was on his passport and his boarding card and both were in his coat.
"Then we shall talk. You've books in your pocket and the airport is closed and half the town shuttered up for the night. You're a long way from home and lonely, forbye, and I'm harmless enough. They'll vouch for me here at the bar if you've a mind."
Duncan, sitting easy in lamplight.
"I've a fire laid ready, and a potful of stew on the stove, and a new-made bed turned down waiting," Duncan said. "Will ye no come home with me?"
Methos considered the hospitality of the Highland race, drank the last of his beer and said, "Aye."
Had he come here for this? If he had, he didn't know it, but the cold had crept through to his bones and he was tired of the faces of strangers. Time was not his friend and the wind knew all his names and never said them aloud: he wanted someone who knew the shape of his thoughts in the dark.
Duncan's hand on his wrist was warm.
Home was a flat in the New Town, high ceilings and sash windows with the night pressing black against the glass. Walls stacked with pictures, kitchen table piled high with letters, books, a white paper on the Arbroath fishing industry, three ball point pens, a capercaillie's tail feather in a dry inkwell, a goldfish bowl with two fat fan-tailed fish. Spice-warmed kitchen with the light gold on oak and skin alike. Duncan served him a bowl of brose with oatmeal and carrots, with a flavoursome shank of lamb somewhere in the making of it and a fine Speyside malt to wash it down beside.
"If we'd met in summer I'd have served you crowdie and raspberries, and a Traquair ale to sink with it, sitting out on the garth in sunshine. Cricket's a game for the English - we'd play boules, you and I, and chess in the evening. Winter's for whisky and stories. Come through."
Peat stacked on hearthstone, cut pine on the mantelpiece, clustered candles on the sideboard between the Jacobean crystal and the hallmarked silver. Heavy stuffed sofas and a Persian rug by the fire pitted with scorch marks: half-empty bookcases and two broadswords hung within reach on the wall and a claymore propped in the corner with the harness still on it. Nothing temporary, this. Duncan's home, and a space by the fire tonight that was his. He could lay down roots in front of that fire.
"I've a cottage on the coast for weekends, for when the herring come back, and a permit for fishing the Tay, come September. A godson. A job. I'll not mention the state of the Union."
History's intimacy threaded down through the years. Duncan's smile was more intimate still, as if presence was a promise made years ago and kept. Faith made Methos uneasy, but flesh was real. They'd never been lovers, but he knew Duncan's bed to be warm by the heating blood in his veins.
They were alone.
He was beginning to warm.
"The oil will last long enough, if we're careful," Duncan said. "You've no idea of the lure of the kilt." He was smiling still. "Half of Asia is Scottish, come Burns Night."
"You can't fund a country on tourists."
"We've a bit more to offer than that. Move over."
Near as close as skin on skin: not the breathless tumult of first bedding, but the easy acquaintance of lovers long met and merry known. Easy as striking a flame, without words. Flames marigold-bright against soot-blackened stone, whisky in his hand, woman's voice on the stereo rich and strange - "Who knows / where the time goes ..."
Duncan at his back, sword-arm heavy against his shoulder. They'd lie in the same bed tonight, he knew it.
"You'll stay for Hogmany, no?"
He was thawing.
Rain coming down under the lights of the bar, golden spears in darkness. Wet cobbles, wet hands, muffler damp around his ears. The tart sweetness of good champagne, cracked open on the bridge to the sound of the bells and ten thousand voices counting down to midnight. The Polish barmaid smiling, pulling pints, with holly in the blonde of her hair; half a dozen strangers kissing him in the street and the sound of a ceilidh band up on George Street; fireworks over the castle feathering black sky with gunpowder smoke. Duncan laughing with a trail of Japanese schoolgirls taking pictures of his knees. He'd a skean-dhu down his socks, but Methos had a Glock under his arm and a length of waxed cotton in his pocket, for emergencies. Later it snowed, when they were walking home, great soft flakes gold-edged between cast iron lampposts. Hardly enough for snowballs, but that didn't stop them trying.
It was one o'clock in the morning, in Scotland, on Hogmanay. The fire was laid and the party only just started.
"I swear," Duncan said, finding his street door open and damp footsteps on the stone tenement stairs "One of these years I'll go out to the cottage. Take a storm lantern and a crate of Highland Park and a good book." He might. But not this year. Methos could hear the music from the first flight of stairs, and when they got to the landing Duncan's neighbour's door was open and standing in it a couple he'd met three days ago in the pub - "Adam, meet Hamish and Jo." They'd talked about fishing, he recalled, and the state of the Union.
There were footsteps behind him and three young students with a tray of bruschetta and a copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which apparently Duncan had quoted in an interview on allotments and the rise of the Labour movement. In Scotland, of course. There was a Saltire sticker on Duncan's Range Rover and a set of colours in the hall that belonged in a museum were it not for the fact that the man had all his nationalist flags nailed to the wall, although the accents coming up the stairs were cheerfully polyglot. More students. Two men in kilts. A baby, asleep, with parents. A See-you Jimmy hat that ended up, later, on the teapot.
Someone called Alan ran through the CDs and called an impromptu Strip the Willow in Duncan's hall. People hit the walls, forgot which sex they were dancing - "Women to the right!" Alan said. "That's your right! Over there! - Oh, who cares? You all know how to do this, right?"
As it happens, Methos did. Then he danced the Dashing White Sergeant with two women from Glasgow in Versace, with whom he'd have happily spent the rest of the night were they not on to the party next door. He took another dram instead, and found Angus who did something on the radio and showed him the stereo. They had the new Glasgow scene for half an hour - everyone knew the words, including him after four days in the capital - and then something with an electronic backbeat like Bedouin drums. Methos was washed up on the sofa by then, Laphroig in his hand: Duncan was demonstrating the Highland Two-step to a young woman from Los Angeles with very good legs, most of which were on show. There'd been three youngsters from England, several of Duncan's colleagues from the Parliament - "Oh, you'll be Adam, then?" a taxi driver from Leith, a woman who ran two restaurants, one of which he'd eaten in, a couple from Nairn who'd come down that morning and were driving back when the party finished - "maybe next week." Three artists, one picture framer, one violin maker, one sculptor who specialised in defacing municipal bus stops, more lumps of coal and dark-haired men than he could count. The heavy swing of Duncan's kilt. Miniature sausages and pineapple: smoked salmon, gravadlax, and black-bun cut into slices.
In retrospect, it really shouldn't have surprised him how many people Duncan knew and of those, how many would turn up on his doorstep and how many of those would say, "Ah, Adam." as if he was part of the scenery already.
It hadn't been like this in Paris.
Here, Duncan was home, and it showed. It looked good on him, too: there were playbills by the telephone and a battered address book on the kitchen table, three dozen matched wineglasses and a salmon platter that looked well used. He'd a life here. He was happy.
In bed, unexpected, he laughed.
Of all things, Methos had not expected that. He was still bemused. Not so much by the fact that Duncan had taken a man to his bed - and indubitably, for Methos had the memories to prove it - knew what he was doing between the sheets with an Immortal of the same gender as himself. But by the fact he'd taken Methos, with as little fuss as if it was still 1976.
"Come to bed," Duncan had said, that first night, late. "With me, aye?"
It was the only time there'd be any uncertainty about the situation. Methos, charmed, had smiled and put his glass down. If he'd thought it would be a case of the tiger leading the sheep, he was wrong. Duncan had rolled him over, sucked him down, and overset every assumption Methos had ever made about the man's sexual preferences. Also, and rather more disconcertingly, the strength of his own response. He'd thought he'd known what he was doing. He was wrong.
He knew that when the airport closing had been nothing more than a note on the news, not the red flag of a contingency plan. When he'd bought six new pairs of socks and a spare sweater and a laptop and Duncan had given him a new pair of gloves. When every morning he'd woken up warm with someone else in the bed and not set himself to concealment.
Duncan laid Scotland before him as if it was a Prince's dowry, and Methos had fallen. Hard. For the man.
He had half a shelf of books to read and a reader's ticket for the manuscript library.
The music stopped. He looked up. Duncan smiled at him across the room, with a confident tenderness that was warmth in itself. He raised his glass in reply.
year in the Highlands, then. He'd need a new coat.