Andrew turned and glanced towards the Bass Rock, his drenched waterproof clinging to his freezing frame, negating any warmth once generated by the extra layer. The gargantuan volcanic plug marooned at sea, stared back at the coast of North Berwick with something approaching stubbornness. Stoic. Impassive. Waves battered its side, rain hammered onto its summit and yet, still, it projected strength.
‘Right then, that should be us about ready I’d say!’
He smiled, his long-overdue-for-a-cut mop of grey hair lashed violently from side to side under the ferocity of the coastal gale. He looked up at the man standing before him. His companion. His customer. The crooked imposing majesty of Tantallon Castle ruin peered down at the two of them from atop the hillside. The 14th century ruin standing steadfast in the storm. ‘So, good sir,’ continued Andrew as he placed one foot on the side of a wooden boat that quite frankly had very clearly seen its best days long ago, ‘I’d like to welcome you to the inaugural Bass Rock Catriona Experience trip. So if you’d kindly step aboard the good ship Catriona we can be on our way to…’
‘You can’t be serious!?’ the man’s face, the portion not covered by his tightly zipped jacket hood, was crumpled in incredulity.
‘Deadly, sir. What’s the problem?’
‘This weather for goodness sake! It’s hellish! I’ve seen seabird trips to the Rock cancelled for far less than this! I mean look at the waves lapping against the Rock itself, they’re damn near scaling the full height of the thing!’
‘Ach it’s just a bit of Scottish hospitality, nothing worse. It’ll die down soon enough.’
‘You’re bloody mad! We’ll bloody well drown out there!’
‘It’s only a short trip. Look. We’ll be there in no time. Plus, this is when you can see the Bass Rock at its finest. In a storm. There’s something…something…there’s just something about it in this weather.’
‘Madness. It’s bloody madness!’
‘Well I’m going. That’s all I can say. You’re very welcome to come along. You’ve got your ticket after all. So which is it?’
The man sighed, glancing from the Bass Rock to the boat in rapid succession. The latter seemed to diminish in appearance with every glance, it’s wooden frame wilting under the relentless assault from the elements.
‘Where you go I go. That’s how it is.’
‘Grand!’ announced Andrew his arm thrust towards the man. ‘Now step this way please…’
The boat lunged wildly, a particularly eager wave trying its best to topple the vessel onto its side. Andrew struggled desperately to correct the course of the boat, only just managing to catch himself and smile weakly through the strain. Maintaining his facade of composure. Calmness.
‘So why Catriona? Why the Bass Rock?’
‘What?’ Andrew shouted in retort to the voice behind him, slightly unsettled as to why the man’s voice didn’t appear to be in the grip of panic.
‘I said’ repeated the man, ‘why Catriona? Why the Bass Rock? There’s already trips to the Bass Rock. The seabird centre runs them. And their boat’s a damn sight better than this one!’
Andrew refused to turn, his eyes trained rigidly on the gradually approaching rock before them.
‘Catriona. It’s a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. One of Ian’s fav….no, forget that. Anyway, there’s scenes in it at the Bass Rock! Needed a different angle than the seabirds you see.’’
‘Yes I know but hardly worth a trip is it?’
‘I said it’s hardly worth a trip is it?’
The boat buckled once more, Andrew almost losing his footing as water encroached upon the floor.
‘Well you thought it was worth it obviously! You’re bloody well on the trip!’ his calm facade visibly cracking.
‘I was just curious. To find out why. The angle. Why the Bass Rock though?’
‘What do you mean ‘why the Bass Rock’? It’s iconic. History. Tourism. Etc.’
‘Yes but why now when there’s already other trips to the rock. Frequent trips. Trips that admittedly wouldn’t run in weather like this. But still.’
Andrew thought, for no more than a fleeting moment, that there was a familiarity to the voice. One that brought comfort. Peace. The rain, the gales, seemed to cease for a fraction of a second before resuming. He collected himself.
‘It’s…’ he started, straining to raise his voice above the crashing waves ‘it’s because of a painting. One that we’ve got in the house. My partner bought it. The print that is. He’s the art lover, not me. But this painting. It was by Alexander Nasmyth. Painted in the 1800‘s or so. It’s of Tantallon Castle and the Bass Rock. Both of them. Only it’s in a storm. It’s always fascinated me. Sometimes, more recently, I’ll just sit and stare at it. For what can seem like hours. There’s something primal about it. Entrancing. The isolation of the rock. The solitude. Even against the storm. Even against all that nature can throw at it, it still looks so bloody heroic, so assured in itself. And yet it can’t escape that isolation.’
The man seemed to hesitate slightly. The previous sharp replies caught in the silence. Andrew began to turn, to find the reason for the prolonged silence but halted. Once more turning back to the rock. Approaching and yet not approaching. As if they were caught in the midst of an optical illusion. Finally the man spoke. Softer somehow, piercing through the sound of the storm and all its apparent ferocity.
‘Are you ok?’
‘What?’ shouted Andrew in reply as gust of wind slapped against his face, ‘Ok?! Of course I am! Never better! And anyway, this is better than your seabird trips, mark my words!’
‘In what way? It’ll be the same, no? Circling the island, staring up at the thousands upon thousands of bloody gannets and then heading back. The same.’
‘Sorry?’ a crack of thunder tore through the skies, seemingly trembling the sea and all within it.
‘Because,’ shouted Andrew, his voice slicing through the extremities with an almost preacher-like power, ‘we’ll actually be going on to the island! Eh! How about that!’
‘Say again? Onto the rock itself?’
‘Yes! Onto the island, amongst the seabirds, into the castle ruin, the abandoned lighthouse, the abbey, the hermit’s….thing…whatever the bloody hell hermits stay on.’
‘Do you have permission for that!? Surely they wouldn’t just…’
‘Never mind that!’ a streak of lightning flashed above them, alighting the Bass Rock.
‘Never mind!? What the bloody hell do you mean never mind!? Of course you need permission, of course you have to…come to think of it how the hell did you get this boat down to the beach? Who does the boat belong to?’
‘That’s not important…’
‘Of course its important! Of course its bloody important! This is bloody madness!’
‘It’s not…’ nothing more than a slight mumble frittered from Andrew’s lips.
‘I SAID IT’S NOT MADNESS! Ok!! Because I need it! I need it! I need….something! To fill this horrible, empty bloody hole! This nothing! He was my everything! Everything! I’m fucking lost without him! Pathetic! Nothing! He was my strength! My spirit! My reassurance! Everything good about me was because of him ok! And I can’t….I can’t….arghhhh I can’t even find the fucking words to do him justice!!! He was my life! My Ian! And now he’s gone! And I need something, somewhere, anything to shelter me, shield me, let me start to recover or grieve or whatever the hell I’m supposed to bloody do! I just…I…!’
He slumped against the wheel, raising his hand in a half-hearted threatening gesture and then withdrew it. He glanced up. The Bass Rock full of splendour, of dignity, of ferocity, lay before them but still out of reach. Forever outwith his grasp. He dropped to his knees, his head in his hands. Convulsing as the biting cold thrust into his every vein, every pore. He felt a hand caressing his shoulder. Gentle. Comforting. Familiar.
He let his hands drop from his face and started to turn. Again halting. Some unknown force scolding him, admonishing him to cease
‘Andrew…’ repeated the voice behind him, ‘it’s ok to feel alone. To feel scared. It’s not weakness. It’s who we are as humans. We all get scared. Every one of us.’
Andrew could feel his body quivering, goosebumps erupting across every inch of his skin. And yet, there was also a calm. A peace. The storm had, once again, seemingly and inexplicably abated however momentarily.
‘I know you need me Andrew. I always needed you aswell. That’s how it works. Right up until the end. I needed you more than you’ll ever know. That’s ok. But we all have our own strength within us Andrew. Especially you. Particularly you.’
He lifted his left hand gently and placed it on the man’s. Yet still he couldn’t bring himself to turn his head, to look back.
‘I miss you Ian. So much. It’s killing me.’
‘I know. But you’ll always have me here, Andrew. Always. There’s nothing that can or will change that.’
Andrew felt a drop of rain slowly inch its way down his cheek. The words, any words, all words, caught in his throat. Refusing him the right of reply.
‘And this madness has to stop. You know it does. Things are as they are. And always will be like this. But I’m always here. Always here if you need to see me. To feel me. I might be out of reach but I promise you there’s nothing that will ever change this. You always, always know where to find me. I’m going nowhere.’ Andrew squeezed the hand tightly, his eyes welding shut in the process, straining to push back against the well of tears threatening to smother his eyelids. His heart pounded, blood rifling through his arteries.
His eyes slowly began to open, the Bass Rock forming in his vision once again. The biting cold of the storm replaced by a mildness, one threatening to veer into an uncomfortable warmth. The clothes, previously festooned to his body through sheer wetness felt lighter, freer, drier against his skin. As his eyes readjusted to the light the Bass Rock appeared to retreat. And retreat. At an alarming rate. Until it settled in the distance. Stoic amid the storm, the ruin of Tantallon Castle perched to its left on the cliff edge. Oil. Paint. Canvas. His painting. Staring down on him as he gazed back up at it. He tasted the salt in the tear as it encroached upon his lips. His left hand clawed at the limp vacant woolen material of Ian’s jumper wrapped around his neck and shoulders.
He sighed. Deeply. Agonisingly. And pulled himself up off the chair. He continued to stare at the painting. Allowing it one last lingering look.
‘That’s it.’ he whispered to himself. ‘Enough’.