‘Yes, what is it darling?’
‘Erm Daddy…what is…what is that bit for?’
‘The big hole in the ground, Daddy? What’s that for, Daddy?’
He feels the sweat tickle his forehead under the heat of the summer sun and removes his flat-cap briefly. He looks down at his daughter. Her hand grasping tightly onto him, fully encased and protected by his own. He smiles. A thin, momentary smile. He rubs his forehead with the back of his hand before placing his hat back on his head.
‘Do you want a drink of water, sweetheart?’ he plucks a half-drunk bottle of water from the side pocket of his backpack.
‘No. Daddy, what is…’
‘No thank you!’
‘If you don’t want something then you say ‘No thank you’’
‘Yeah?’ he takes a swig of the bottle. The water is warm, devoid of any kind of refreshment.
‘Daddy…what is that hole there for?’
‘I don’t know m’darling. The people in the castle probably used it for something.’
‘Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years ago?’
‘That’s right, yeah. It might have been where the toilet water ran. Or it might have been a secret passageway or something.’
‘Yeah…or maybe…or maybe…’
‘Or maybe they kept something there.’
‘Or maybe…maybe a DRAGON stayed there!’ his daughter simultaneously gasps and nods at her own suggestion, both excited and terrified by the prospect.
‘Maybe, darling. Maybe…’ he laughs to himself, allowing it to spread into a smile as he looks down at his three year old daughter. She stares transfixed at the hole in the ground, occasionally swatting away the long hair from her face.
He pulls the Historic Scotland castle guide from his pocket and has a quick skim through, looking for any clue as to what the hole could represent. Nothing. He glances up at the castle ruin to his right. Much of the castle perimeter remains intact. The years, and invading armies through the annals of history, have of course played their part in damaging it somewhat but the ruin remains an impressive sight. His eyes follow the trail of the castle, over the damaged front wall, through the restored portcullis, across the dry moat and eventually to the hole in the ground. Who knows, he thinks. Sometimes things don’t require an explanation. He looks down at the wide-eyed wonder currently consuming his daughter.
‘You know what darling…’
‘Yeah?’ she looks up. A gust of wind straddles hair across her eyes.
‘I think it was for a dragon.’
‘A long, long time ago?!’ she asks exalted.
‘I think so, yeah. That must be why they built the castle.’
‘Yeah. Yeah. And. And. Aaaand. And maybe that’s why the castle is broken eh? Because the dragon burned it down?’
‘Ohh maybe, sweetheart! I think you’re right. Here, sweetpea, let’s go and have a look at the castle itself.’
He takes her hand as she skips across the grass towards the ruin, all the images and visions of a fearsome dragon attacking the castle hundreds of years before playing over and over in her mind. He smiles to himself again. They walk over the bridge, each of their footsteps echoing around the surrounding landscape. As they enter the castle ruin he looks up and sees another couple of visitors towards the far right corner of the structure. A middle-aged woman and an elderly man. The former seemed to be supporting the latter as he steadied himself with a walking stick.
‘…hmm?’ he asks, slightly distracted. He drags his gaze away from the other visitors and looks down at this daughter. ‘What is it darling?’
‘Can we maybe go up to the top, Daddy? Up the top of the castle?
He glances up towards the top of the structure. Three levels. All no doubt traversed by the narrowest and darkest of spiral staircases. With no bannister to speak of. And a small child to carry up. He looks back down at the inveigling smile staring back up at him. He sighs slightly; the sigh infused with a laugh.
‘Of course m’girl. Of course we can.’
‘I’m ok…I’ll be fine.’
‘Dad, stop being so bloody stubborn. Here, just take me my hand.’
‘No! I told you, I’ll be fine!! I’m not a bloody invalid!’
The old man, slightly hunched and gaunt in appearance, mutters to himself under his breath as he nudges his daughter’s hand away from his side, his own hand trembling slightly as its clings to a walking stick. His daughter rolls her eyes slightly and pushes the long strands of straightened black hair from her face. He’s so bloody stubborn, she thinks to herself. He’s always been the same. She nervously looks at the spiral stairs a foot or so away from them and instinctively, and somewhat covertly, holds her hand out behind her Dad’s back as extra security. He’s far from an invalid, she agrees, but he is in his seventies. You can’t be too careful.
The old man slowly shuffles his feet along the polished stone floor, halting at the foot at the stairs. He rests both hands on the handle of the walking stick. ‘You know…’ he begins.
‘What is it Dad?’
‘…you know I know your hand is behind me don’t you? You’re far from a world-class sleuth my girl.’
They both shared a laugh. And a smile. Both their faces contorting in the same way as the old man turned to his daughter, placing one hand affectionately on her arm.
‘I’m fine darling, seriously. I know I’m an old bugger, and I know I’m a grumpy bugger at times, but I’m fine. I’m not a fossil yet. I promise.’
‘I know Dad,’ she returns the affection, placing her own hand gently over his, ‘I know. But I’m your daughter. I’m allowed to worry about you sometimes.’
His smile widens as he looks at her. A knowing smile. A proud smile. His girl. His daughter. Now this beautiful, accomplished, confident woman standing before him. When the hell did that happen. One day a toddler, finding her way in the world with a smile, a giggle and a tantrum. And the next, a fully realised grown up. In her forties for christ sake!? That was the thing about life, he thought. It was, and is, so fleeting when all is said and done. And the times truly worth living for seem to pass by quicker than the rest. It wasn’t a thought that would break new philosophical ground but it was true.
‘Come on’ he says, clutching her arm tightly for a brief moment before pulling it away. ‘Let’s head on up.’
He smiles at her and turns, grasping hold of his walking stick once again before beginning the slow ascent.
‘Ok, ok…let’s just go in here a second, darling…’ the man lowers his daughter to the wooden floor as they step away from the spiral staircase. Sweat trickles down his forehead once more. He feels his clothes starting to flatten against his skin.
‘Why we are not going up the top, Daddy?
‘We will darling…we…we will…’ he gasps through staggered breaths and further gulps of warm water. ‘Daddy just needs a minute, that’s all.’
‘I wanna go up the top though’ she replies, a look of annoyance creeping over her face.
‘Look!’ he begins in a burst of mini temper – inspired in large part due to the strain and exhaustion creeping up and down his spine –before reeling it back in again. ‘Look sweetheart, we will go up the top. Let’s just see this room first. Look this used to be a bedroom a long time ago. And see that over there…’
He nods towards a large, deep hole carved into the wall. His daughter looks across.
‘…that used to be the fireplace. Imagine having a fireplace in your bedroom eh…’ he takes another gulp of water.
‘Yeah’ she smiles. ‘Can I go and see it?’
‘Of course you can.’ he arches his back slightly as shards of strain continue to cascade down it. He follows his daughter’s route as she scampers towards the long-since-derelict fireplace. She bursts into laughter as she stands in the indent, perfectly fitting in the space with room to spare.
‘Look Daddy’ she laughs. He smiles.
‘Here, darling, stay there for a second. Let me get a picture’ he says as he reaches into his pocket for his phone.
‘Here Dad, let’s stop here for a bit.’
‘Well, if you insist…’ the old man mumbles barely audibly, as he limps into what was once the castle’s ‘Grand Hall’. He can feel the cramp suffocating each leg, gripping hold like a vice. His back burning, agony searing through its lower regions. ‘Bloody hell’ he exclaims.
‘What is it?’ his daughter places a hand on her Dad’s back.
‘It’s a lot…it’s a lot bloody harder to climb than I remember anyway. That’s…for sure.’
‘We don’t need to go to the top Dad, you know that right. Even this far is damn impressive.’
‘No! We need to go to the top. I want to go the top.’
‘Ok, ok, but look there’s no point if…’
‘No! Listen, here, pass me that water…’
She hands him the water from her backpack. He drinks. Thoroughly. A handful of drops of water spill down his chin as he almost drains the bottle.
‘Christ, I needed that.’
‘Yeah, I can tell. Thanks for leaving plenty of water for me aswell by the way’ replies his daughter as she takes the bottle from his outstretched hand. She wiggles it slightly, allowing the miniscule amount of liquid to splash about at the base of the bottle for dramatic emphasis.
‘Cheeky bugger. You always were’ he smiles in return.
‘So this is the Grand Hall then’ she says, wandering across the room towards an information board, the sound of her footsteps reverberating around the vast, hollow space.
‘It would appear to be, aye’ the old man casts his eye around as he wipes his forehead with his handkerchief, soaking the material with beads of sweat. He walks slowly toward the centre of the room.
‘Some size of a table that. And those chairs, they’re much bigger than I remember.’
‘They will be aye, given you were about a third of the size you are now when you were last here.’
‘Here Dad, take a seat here, I’ll get a photo of you.’
He sighs, shaking his head. Bloody daft, he thinks, as he wanders over towards his daughter and the chairs in question. Always wanting a photo, that one.
‘Jesus…christ’ gasps the man, each step now requiring a herculean effort to conquer. The daughter in his arms, the bag on his back, the steepness of the dark, ancient spiral staircase all contributing to the near-insurmountable task thrust upon him. ‘You’re…you’re…some…some size these days. Darling.’
‘Jesus christ!’ she declares, before adding rather more timidly, ‘…can I say that…..?’
‘Jesus Christ. Can I say that Daddy?’
‘Well…you…you just have.’ The heat, the strain now threatening to cripple his back. How many more bloody stairs are there!?
‘But can I say that? It’s not a bad word?’
‘No darling….no…that’s ok…it’s not that bad a word no…’
‘Oh.Ok.’ she smiles down at him from her makeshift perch only inches from his face.
‘I mean…it’s…not as if…as if you said the other…bad…words…’
‘Like what, Daddy?’
‘No…it doesn’t matter…forget it…sweetheart….’
‘And Daddy. Daddy?’
‘Can I say fuc…
‘Dad! Seriously! We can go back down. You’ll have a bloody heart attack at this rate!’
‘Don’t…be…don’t be…bloody…och just shut up’ the old man grumbles from the stair above his daughter.
‘Dad, stop being so bloody stubborn! It’s steep, it’s dark, and it’s treacherous even for a young person! I’m struggling as it is…’ she felt a twinge in her lower back as the gradient started to exert its influence over proceedings, ‘…just, turn back around…’
‘Stubborn!? Coming from you? That’s…that’s rich….that is’ his walking stick wobbled slightly as he felt his legs twinge beneath him. No. No giving up now. Not a chance.
‘What…was that…you muttered there?’
‘Oh…ok…because it sounded…sounded a lot like…jesus christ…to me…’
‘Well your hearing must be playing tricks on you then’ the flash of sarcasm serving as a perfect indicator to her own level of struggle as no end appeared to be in sight for this eternally spiralling staircase.
‘No, that’s…about….the only…thing…the only thing I’ve still…got that…that works.’
‘Well then let’s just turn back and go back down! We can do this another time!!’
‘Because…because there won’t be…there won’t be another time…will there? There’s…never…never enough time. You’ve got your own…your own life. And I’ve got mine. It’s natural. But time. There’s barely ever…barely ever time. So I’m…making time.’
‘I said ok…Dad.’ her head dropped slightly, the words of her father burrowing into her veins.
‘Will this…ah!…will this…bloody staircase never bloody end…’
She heard voices approaching, slowly edging down the stairs above them. Brilliant. That was all they needed. Too far to back up down the stairs and no idea how far they still had left to climb. ‘Hold on Dad…there’s folk coming down the stairs…’
‘Eh? What’s that you’re saying?’
‘I said…I said there’s people coming DOWN THE STAIRS…’
‘Oh for fu…’
‘Finally! Deary me…’ the man gasps as he steps out from the staircase and onto the rooftop.
‘Darling! Stop that now…’
‘Ok Daddy…’ a cheeky grin spreads across her face as the man lowers her down from his arms.
The man looks up, feeling the heat prickle against his face. The blue skies, now completely devoid of cloud cover. The slightest of breezes gently caresses his face, efficiently arriving in a blissful cascade. He surveys the rooftop. No one there but the two of them. Bliss.
‘Daddy, Daddy, look…’
She reaches out for his hand and points across to, what was likely once used as, a spyhole in the wall along the rooftop’s perimeter. He takes her hand, grasping it tightly, and slowly walks over to the wall. His daughter crouches down and looks through the small spyhole, the base of the castle and the grounds surrounding it neatly condensing into her vision.
‘Look Daddy, look. The dragon’s house. Down there. The dragon’s house.’
‘That’s right darling yeah’ he crouches down alongside her and gazes through the spyhole. Or the hole used for arches. Or whatever it was, he wasn’t entirely sure. The hole in the ground stares back at him from several dozen feet below. The grass covering it glistens in the sun, a slight mirage of heat waves back and forth close to it. ‘That’s really cool, seeing it from up here eh?’
‘Yeahhh. Really cool.’
He turns his head only fractionally to stare at his daughter. He sees the wonder, the inspiration, the happiness filling each pore of her skin, each portion of her gaze. He feels pride. Love. Even his own portion of happiness. Something even resembling contentment. He gently runs his hand down her hair.
‘Daddy? What can we do now?’
‘What can we do now Daddy?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean what can we do now Daddy?’
‘Now? We’ve only just got up here! Just stay up here for a bit and then we can…’
‘No, I want to do something else now Daddy.’
‘Want to do something else now…’
‘Listen. We will do, ok. Just wait a minute. There’s no need to rush all the time, sweetheart. It’s not bad to slow down every now and again ok? We don’t always have to be constantly doing something else. We have plenty of time. I’ll be old soon enough, we all will be, so let’s just enjoy just now for a bit longer and take our time. Ok?’
‘Can we go now?’
‘Ok. Fine. Let’s go back down then sweetheart.’
He raises himself up from the ground, feeling the muscles flex in his legs. This is swiftly followed by a dart of pain stabbing into his spine. Well at least it was worth it, he thinks, all 30 seconds or so we’ve spent up here. At least I managed to keep her interested for that long at least. That’s an achievement I suppose.
He takes one last look at the calm, sun-kissed surrounding landscape, soaking in the weather, before scooping her into his arms once more. As they approach the top of the narrow staircase again he steels himself for the steep descent into the darkness.
‘Yep darling, what is it…’ the words sound grated, slightly annoyed even, as he struggles to readjust her position against his shoulder.
‘I love seeing castles with you Daddy.’
He halts suddenly, drawing his foot back from the first step down. The impact of the words, their unexpected arrival, staying his movement briefly. He feels a small surge of emotion. His eyelids tingle with the threat of tears. He sniffs before moving his head slightly and kissing his daughter on her forehead.
‘I love it too, sweetheart.’
‘Yes darling?’ he tightens his grip of her.
‘What are we going to do now?
He laughs to himself and kisses his daughter on the forehead again.
‘I don’t know, my girl’ he says as he takes his first cautious step into the darkness of the stairwell, ‘let’s see when we get to the bottom of these stairs eh. We can anything you want, darling. We’ve got plenty of time.’
‘Finally! Deary me…’
The woman looks over at her Dad as they struggle out onto the rooftop. He tries to straighten himself, clearly suffering after the monumental hike up the stairs.
‘You ok, Dad?’
He raises an arm in acknowledgement, words or the ability to vocalise evading him for the time being.
He nods, leaning his arm against the wall.
Because I’m bloody well not, she thinks, feeling the heat envelope her flesh. She looks up at the sky clouding over. A gloom hangs over the castle and the surrounding area. Jesus, what a climb that was.
‘Any water left?’ she looks at her Dad as he reaches out.
‘Barely. Someone drank it all remember.’
‘Wheesht you.’ He accepts the water from her and guzzles the last few droplets from the bottle.
‘Happy now?’ she asks.
‘With the water? No, there was hardly any bloody left.’
‘Jesus christ. Not the water. Happy that you’ve made it to the top. That we’ve made it up here.’
‘Eh? Aye. Yes. I am. Yes.’
‘Just give me a minute, that’s all. I can’t remember there being that many stairs the last time we were here. They must have added some more in.’
‘Yeah Dad, that sounds plausible. Adding in stairs to an eight hundred year old ruin of a castle sounds exactly right.’
‘Cheeky bugger’ he smiles before breaking into a cough.
‘Yeah yeah, of course.’ She looks around at the fairly narrow rooftop. Just the two of them. In fact she hadn’t seen anyone else at the castle all day. The weather might have something to do with that, she thinks. Her gaze rests on a section of the wall to the far side of the roof, close to the entrance to the opposite stairwell. She slowly walks over, almost in a trance. Feeling strangely halfway between knowing what she was walking towards and not knowing. A spyhole. Or a hole for archers to utilise against the enemy. Whatever it was. She remembers it. Or at least she thinks she does.
‘This thing…this spyhole…’
‘Eh?’ he slowly walks towards her.
‘I said this spyhole thing here, in the wall…’
‘Do you remember it? Something about it just…’
‘Yeah I thought that’s what you said but I thought you’d taken a funny turn or something.’
‘Look through it. You cheeky bugger.’
‘Through the spyhole. Look through it.’
‘Trust me. Have a look.’
She shrugs and lowers herself down. She feels her ankles tense slightly as she lowers herself further. She closes one eye and stares through the slit in the stone. The base of the castle emerges before her. And the grassy knolls surrounding the castle. And…yes, dragons, yes. Dragons. The hole. The…what was it…the dragon’s lair. No, house. Yes. The dragon’s house. She turns to look up at her Dad, by now standing next to her.
‘Dragons’ she said quietly.
‘The dragon’s house.’
‘Yep.’ His expression resting somewhere between smugness and sentimentality. She turns back to look through the gap in the stone. ‘You used to love going to see castles.’
‘You did. Discovering them, making up stories, running around them.’
‘Well, I still do Dad, I…’
‘Don’t be silly’ he laughs, ‘there’s no point in fibbing. I knew you would get bored of it eventually. It’s not exactly a widespread hobby or interest is it. But you did like doing it, once. Like I say, I always knew you would get bored of it eventually, sooner rather than later. But, while it lasted, it was fun. It was…well, it was our thing. Me and you. With everything else that was going on in both our lives, and as busy and hectic as they always were, it was always our thing. It always was. You know?’
She feels her Dad’s hand gently caress her shoulder. Despite a slight tremble, there’s strength there, a protection. She feels her eyes begin to well slightly. She continues to stare out through the spyhole in the castle wall. Staring down at the ‘dragon’s house’, unable to turn and face her Dad for fear of allowing nostalgia or sentiment to take an irrational hold of events.
‘I know…’ she croaks, her voice quivering slightly. ‘I know.’
She hears an array of sniffs and throat clearings from behind her. She raises her own hand and grasps her Dad’s as it begins to rise from her shoulder. She holds it, firmly, struggling to contain her emotions.
‘Anyway,’ the old man says from behind her, his voice fragile, ‘we’d better make a move. It looks like it’s going to come on a pelt of rain anytime soon.’
‘No, Dad. It’s fine. Let’s just stay for a bit. It’s fine.’
She smiles and turns, looking up at him. His withered, wrinkled face shining with the sting of tears. His mouth clenched shut in a desperate bid to stem the flow. A smile forces its way through the struggle.
But for the two of them, father and daughter, the castle sits silent. Ancient. Impenetrable. Its shadow expanding ever-so gradually as the day begins its long, slow fade into the dark of evening.