June 6, 2014

We hadn’t set a day for scattering Mabel’s ashes. But as my brother was here and the weather was bright, suddenly it was arranged. We would do it the next day.

John suggested we use his car, as there was more room for Dad’s Zimmer. But I wanted our last journey together to be in the red Renault that was such a fine mobile home for Mabel, Ian and me these last years. So off we went with a picnic for three and the cardboard box with the words ‘Mabel McLaren’ written on it.

It was Dad’s idea to scatter Mabel’s remains up Glenshee where she’d enjoyed happy times skiing in the Fifties when she herself had been in her twenties. At first I thought we should keep what was left of Mum closer to home but half the ashes are going to be buried in Blairgowrie cemetery so we can surely afford to make this an away day, a day out for us all.

Over lunch, looking at the mountains, I wonder aloud where Mabel is. “All around us, I suppose,” I say. Ian tells me he says goodnight to her every night before going to sleep. For some reason, I have difficulty swallowing a mouthful of sandwich.

We motor a little further north, then stop in an informal lay-by. We are at the foot of a mountain called Gulabin, one that Mabel and Ian both skied on. I get the Zimmer out of the car while John opens the pigeon-sized packet of what looks like grit. Dad takes a generous handful of this stuff and throws it onto the grass and heather, “Our last goodbye, Mabel. See you soon in eternity.”

Ian can’t go further up the hill. But John and I can. At my instigation we talk about what we’ll do with the family home when we inherit it in due course. I’d quite like to hold on to it, but I’m fairly sure John won’t want his half of the inheritance tied up in this way and by getting him to talk about his likely preferences this should help me get my head around the situation. It’s a weird time this, with Mum recently deceased and with Dad unlikely to have all that much time left. The family that has always been there for us is dissolving in front of our eyes.

When we reach a mountain stream, John digs his hand into the packet and releases a handful of our mother into the gurgling water. “This will take you down somewhere,” he says, composed.

I take charge of the cardboard box with what remains of the packet, because I’m going further up the hill to where lie the remains of a ski-hut. Mabel was one of the skiers present when the hut was opened in 1955 and it’s appropriate that it’s a wreck now, its walls flattened by mountain time.

 - 078

But I stop long enough to pour some of Mabel’s remains around - but not on top of - a small purple flower.
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,” I quote, before pushing on with my climb.

It’s further than I’d remembered. I stop to get my breath back and because intermittent sobbing is interfering with my breathing. There is a herd of red deer in the mountainside above me. They seem undisturbed by my presence so far. I hope they’re ready for a display of raw emotion though. I expect they’ll cope with anything I can throw at them. After all, they’re used to the sight of fear, pain and grief. Nature, red in tooth and claw, and all that.

A metal frame near the top of the mountain tells me I’m almost there. A rusty wheel shows the spot from where skiers were pulled up the hillside with the help of a tractor, a primitive kind of ski lift. And fifty meters from there is the site of the hut. It’s wood and corrugated iron is spread-eagled over the heather.

 - 075

Looking around, I note the herd has moved away; I’m on my own here.

I put my hand into the bag of burnt and shredded bones and throw some of it to the wind. A wailing sound comes out of me as I throw, and then I watch, bereft, as the cloud of dust floats away. I do the throw and make the noise again, and again, conscious that the long mountainside that I’m looking at on the other side of Glenshee, in the direction of which the wind is blowing Mum’s ashes, is the place that Mabel walked all night the time that she got lost in a fog while ski-ing. Yes, she walked all night carrying her skis, just as she carried the memory of the event through the rest of her days. In a sense her bright ski-ing seasons and that long, dark night was the culmination of her life as a single person. The next year she started to go out with Ian, a few years later I was born, and 56 years after that, here I am with sorrow distorting my face, full of the perspective that life is short. What a funny fit we are with the universe. It being so overwhelmingly large, and our lives being such... grains of dust.

As I stumble back the way I came I cast a glance over my shoulder and I see that there is one deer up there looking down on me, and that it’s a hind. Of course there is! I should have known there would be.

 - 085

“Coo, I’ve been a long time.” I say, as I get back to the red car. “Sorry about that.” But there is a good feeling in the vehicle as John drives Dad and me home.