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To Mull and Back

Once in a while, or so they tell me, it’s good for the soul to take a holiday. This year, our annual pilgrimage took us up to the beautiful Scottish island of Mull. When I say us, I had better clarify. ‘Us’ is the generic term for myself, the two kids and my father. Alan decided a year ago that holidays weren’t really his thing. We all tended to agree after witnessing him morosely staring at fence posts and lovingly describing their intricate details on our last jaunt up to Scotland a year ago. He also disappeared for a day on the same said holiday to mournfully watch the local farmers bring in their harvest. Little comments, touched with sadness, escaped his lips about how the barley should be ready to combine at home. His eyes took on that faraway look as he lost himself in balers, combines and corn trailers. We all ardently agreed that this year, he would be far better off staying at home and taking care of the menagerie. He didn’t argue. So, with (fleetingly) heavy hearts, we packed up the car, kissed all the animals, said our goodbyes and set off.
I didn’t see Alan after that. In the distance I heard the faint drone of an engine, and above the hedges I could just make out a metal boom. And boy, what a hole he dug. It could have swallowed the Eiffel Tower.

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Now, to paint a picture of the situation, my father is a stickler for an itinerary. Having been a teacher all his life, the all-important detailed plan, including minute by minute schedules, needed adhering to – to the letter. Set off time was scheduled for 8am. However, my father had been a primary school teacher. He had not taught teenagers. Anna, my 11 year old-going-on-17-year-old had not been listed in the risk assessments. Thomas, my 10 year old, was not the issue. It was a Goliath of a task, and one that I had been bracing myself for – to ensure my daughter was ready on time. Up, breakfasted, and dressed on a non-school day was no mean feat for a nocturnal teenager. I had paled slightly and made a huge effort to hide the crack in my voice when Dad had gone through the itinerary. I mentally reorganised my morning and rescheduled my alarm for an hour earlier. I had to get up, muck out, feed up, sort out livestock, finish packing, and ensure the kids were ready. Sweat beaded on my forehead as the clock slowly and relentless ticked. I worked like a machine and made it.

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My father had quite sensibly arranged for me to go on his car insurance so we could share the arduous journey. I decided, due to my past history of having a tendency to fall asleep at the wheel on long journeys, to drive first. Fine – should be easy enough – except Dad’s car is an automatic. And he is rather car proud. And I had filled it with ‘essentials’ – mucky wellies, blankets that had previously been play mats for the turkeys (I had shaken off the poo), and kids. And there was no clutch or proper gear stick. I think a woman’s brain never shuts off, especially a mother’s. My brain turned somersaults as I negotiated a new driving style, ticked off all the jobs that had needed doing, mentally counted in wellies, children, and other essentials and set off – on time too. I prided myself on my organisational skills. 10 minutes down the road, I was still head counting and assessing. Shit. Anna’s bag. I had left it on my bed for her to add in her sponge bag. School boy error. There was no chance that bag was in the car. I pulled over. Dad looked horrified and checked the time. ‘Anna’s bag is on my bed’ I gravely announced. Strange indistinguishable noises emitted from the back of the car that sounded something like ‘it’s not-my-fault-and-how-was-I-supposed-to-know-I-was-to-bring my-bag-with-everything-I could possibly-need-in-it’. I turned round and headed back. 10 minutes back, then another 10 minutes to reach the same point again. 10 minutes into a 10 hour journey, the schedule was ruined. It didn’t bode well. Dad, to give him credit was remarkably calm. I think there comes a time when you know you have lost. However, I wasn’t going to let him down. I prayed the traffic police were still in bed and put my foot down. Dad’s car cruises and we purred along like a pro. Somehow I made up the time before sleep took over and we swapped drivers. I’m still nervously watching for the post every morning though…

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10 hours later we arrived, like refugees, at the cottage we were to stay in, in Tobermory. It was quite lovely and the holiday was a great break. Dad had organised the days like a military operation, and, in true old boy style, had written important information on the backs of endless envelopes. I photographed them just to make sure they were immortalised before inevitably getting lost… Day 1 – arrive; Day 2 – trip to Fionnphort in order to island hop to Iona, then further hop to Staffa to see Fingal’s Cave with its basalt columns, minke whale on the way and the puffins that pop up like ‘splat – a – rat’ upon the hill side cliff face. Sounds straightforward? It certainly would be in under normal circumstances, if a little ambitious.

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Mull is a stunning island 50-60 miles long with approximately 2.5 thousand natives. This number swells exponentially during peak season. The roads on Mull are a throw-back to a bygone era. There is one stretch of ‘normal’ 2-way traffic; the rest is single track with numerous passing places. As one can imagine, a 60 mile trip from the north to the south of the island takes a bit of negotiation with oncoming tourists and disgruntled locals. 2 hours later we arrived. I was green. I’m not a great traveller, and my dad is not the most patient driver on the road; 0 – 60 mph, then 60 – 0 mph every few hundred yards accompanied with ‘sorry’ or ‘oh shit’. Staffa was incredible, but I declined the offer to return later in the week.

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The journey back from Fionnphort to Tobermory was interesting. It was late and thankfully most tourists had found the local drinking houses. It was the Sunday that is followed by Bank Holiday Monday. At 4pm Mull closed down. We had just nicely set off when Dad noticed the petrol gauge. Well, it was hard to miss. A large sign flashed ‘low fuel’. No problem. My car can do at least 50 miles at this point, and there were two petrol stations en route. The first was where we were – Fionnphort, but the time was 5pm. Closed. Dad did a dad-type reconnaissance to plead with a local, but no joy. We set off. The journey back was far more sedentary, we travelled at a pleasant speed, which I thought was very thoughtful of Dad. He had fallen silent. The roads were empty. Perfect. The scenery was spectacular. Bleak mountains soared like Gods flanking the road. Golden eagles, white tailed eagles and buzzards cried above us. Ravens hugged the mountain tops and red deer looked upon us with questioning eyes. Dad slowed down. I appreciated the opportunity to drink in the vista. Dad checked the fuel: empty in 19 miles. We had 45 miles to go. No problem, I smiled, I am in the RAC, and there were worse things that could happen. I checked my phone. No service. Oh. I thought once we’d passed the mountains, service would resume. The mountains go on a long way. More than 19 miles. Silence fell like the clouds around us. Not one other human anywhere. No houses, no cars, no mad mountain-running men. Nothing apart from the haunting cries of the raptors gathering. Dad slowed down. The midges sped up as if sensing the imminent stranding of their dinner. We slowly crawled our way for miles. It’s amazing how far a car will run on fumes. At last we trailed limply into Craignure, the town central on the island. One petrol station – Closed. There was no chance of reaching Tobermory. We were stranded. We fought the midges and made our way to the pub. It seemed like a good idea. Matt and Amy were the two landlords and what angels they were. They took us under their wing, siphoned fuel from their own vehicles, called upon their mates to do the same and sent us merrily on our way. We are forever in your debt Matt.

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The holiday continued without too many more mishaps; sunshine and showers, boat trips and wildlife tours ensued. It was a truly lovely holiday. Thanks Dad.

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On arriving home, I had kissed the animals hello, started unpacking, and organising the kids to do the same, and then I met Alan. He seemed none the worse for wear. The animals were still alive – I call that a success. However, the bedroom smelt a little odd. I mused upon the cause and wondered upon its whereabouts, when Alan confessed to a terrible thing. Time stood still again. I stared at him. At least I knew he hadn’t missed me. The tell-tale stain of debauchery, brown upon my bed. I thought the least he could have done was change the sheets, but no.

At least it was only the beer he had spilt whilst watching TV in bed. I’ll buy him a waterproof mat next time I go away.

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