We awake the next day to the most glorious sunshine, and I vow to put the bizarre events of yesterday behind me and to continue my exploration of the area. We cross the river and head along a narrow tarmac path that leads into woodland. We cross a bridge over a single-track railway and continue through the woods, which consists of old pine, juniper and birch trees, until we reach a gravel track that climbs a gentle slope to our left. The sun is dazzling us as we ascend, forcing us to look down until the track curves again to the left and then ends at a grassy field. We follow the fence-line to our left and head up the hill, the whippet taking the opportunity to flip himself over and scratch his back on the wiry grass, exposing his bald underbelly to the warm sunshine. He seems to have decided that this is a good enough destination for him, and after a quick shake, he lies back down and does not move.
I continue onwards, and when I turn back to call him, I cannot help but admire the remarkable view across Strathspey that takes in Ben MacDhui to my left, through the southern Cairngorms in front of me to the Monadhliath peaks on my right. The whippet has a point about this spot, but it is a deceptive winter sun, and it would not take long to get cold if we were to stay still, so it is essential we keep moving. At the top of the field, we find a rough track that ascends the hill in a winding manner. There is much more variation in the vegetation than yesterday’s walk, and although it appears at first glance to be very pretty and unspoiled, there remains a sense that this is an organised wildness, that at some point it had been cultivated by humans to look this way, but that it has been left to its own devices for some time. There are bushes of many different shades of green, despite the time of year, out of which poke spindly winter trees, and the sleeping heather and various dry grasses provide a spectrum of pale ochres through to Indian reds and deep dark sepias. Like yesterday, I am yet to encounter another human, and the whippet yet to spot any wildlife.
As we turn a corner, I notice above the tree line what appears to be a manmade structure of some kind. It seems to be leaning at a strange angle, much like the Tower of Pisa. As we get a bit closer, the woods thin out and we are on a more open patch of ground. The path is suddenly blocked off with temporary fencing, and there are men wearing hi-visibility jackets milling around with surveying equipment. As I approach the temporary fence, I can see that the structure, which is now more readable as a monument of sorts, is indeed poking out of the ground at an unnatural angle, and is standing atop a large mound of disturbed earth. There is a guard sitting on a chair next to the fence, so I approach him and ask what is going on.
‘We’re here to investigate this strange mound,’ he says. ‘We’re not sure when it first appeared, or what’s causing it.’
‘How long have you been here?’ I ask.
‘A couple of days now,’ he says, ‘but we can’t get near it. Every time we approach, there’s a strange rumbling noise and the mound rises up a bit more. The monument used to be on flat earth, and you could walk right up to it. But not now. We’re worried that it might topple. As you can see, it’s leaning over to the right, and it gets worse each time the mound grows.’
‘How utterly bizarre!’ I say.
‘You’re telling me!’ he replies.
‘The monument looks to be in the centre of the mound,’ I say, ‘so how come it’s leaning?’
‘The mound is an odd shape which is difficult to see from here. If you were to go around the side, you’d see that it isn’t a single hump, but two curved elevations that join in a point at one end. The monument is located in a divot between the elevations. This seems to have made it more unstable and caused it to lean.’
‘Is the monument very old?’
‘It was built in the 1830s to commemorate an old Duke. He was the end of the family line, so this is all that’s left of him, so to speak. It’s been stood here for almost two hundred years without incident, but now this.’
‘Who was the Duke? Do you know anything about him?’
‘I was just reading about him before you got here,’ he says, and starts fiddling with his smartphone. ‘He was a great soldier, by all accounts, but dreadful with money and had to marry into wealth to pay off his debts. One of his final public undertakings was to vote against every reading of something called the Great Reform Act. Do you know what that is? It was the first step towards universal suffrage, apparently. He was one of twenty-two Tories to oppose it, it says here. They went against the instructions of the Prime Minister, who wanted it to pass because he was afraid of a national uprising and a run on the Bank of England. The “Days of May”. That’s what the period of impending revolution was supposedly called.’
‘He doesn’t sound like a man of the people, the old Duke.’
‘He was only out for himself! The rest of his party, the ones who didn’t vote against the bill abstained. Too scared to vote either way, it seems. But it kept them in power a bit longer. Tories, eh? Some things never change!’
‘So, who built the monument?’
‘The monument was built through subscription, it seems, not taxation. So it’s more a private monument than a public one. It used to be his land that we’re standing on, you see. God knows whose it is now, and whether they’re any more “a man of the people” than he was.’
‘I guess you won’t let me get a bit closer… ’
‘Sorry, no can do, it’s not safe. We daren’t approach the mound, and the monument could collapse at any minute.’
‘Fair enough,’ I say, ‘good luck with your investigations.’
I call the whippet, and we head back down the hill.
We reach the Spey and head north along its banks. Soon we arrive at a large village of mixed modern and older buildings, some of which date back to the eighteenth-century. We continue on the track that runs alongside the river, and up ahead I can see a stone footbridge. On the grassy verge in front of the bridge is a family of five – a man, a woman, and three children – sitting on blanket, surrounded by food.
‘Good afternoon!’ I say as I approach, ‘Nice day for a picnic!’
‘It’s a celebration!’ says the woman, cheerily.
‘Even better!’ I exclaim, ‘What are you celebrating?’
‘It’s a celebration of our new found freedom! We’ve all been stuck in the house for many months with a strange illness, but now we’ve shaken it off, we’re venturing out into the world together for what seems like the first time in our lives! Later, there’ll be a party at our house and everyone in the village has been invited.’
‘Great news! But what kind of illness keeps an entire family indoors for so long?’
‘It’s a bit of a story, perhaps you’d like some tea… ?’
‘Thanks, but I don’t want to gate-crash your celebration.’
‘Not at all,’ she says, ‘it’s nice to meet somebody new after all this time.’
The children hand me a paper plate on which they’ve placed a small cake that is clearly the work of their own hands.
The whippet has found an open bag of crisps in the picnic basket, and the family laugh as he emerges with the packet stuck over his muzzle. I sit down.
‘The house we were stuck in is actually at the heart of the story,’ she explains, ‘it’s just up the road there. It’s my parents’ house and I grew up in it. It’s been in the family since it was built, but several years before I was born, an unscrupulous claim was made on it by a newcomer in the village and, inexplicably, and against my grandparents’ will, it was passed into the incomers’ ownership. They didn’t make us leave the house, but some members of the incomers’ family moved in, and my grandparents became employees of the new residents, as a means to stay. The incomers removed a fair bit of the furniture, which had been there since it the house was built, made several structural modifications, and then decorated the whole place to their own taste.’
‘I was born into this situation, and didn’t know it any other way, so although my parents and grandparents hated it, I just understood it as normal. In fact, at one point, I went to the city the incomers came from and actually quite liked it, and I decided to stay there for a while.’
‘You even married someone there!’ chuckles the man, clearly referring to himself.
‘While I was away, my father realised the incomers’ claim on the house was illegal, and he successfully brought it back into family ownership. My parents no longer had to work for them, and we were free to decide on our own future again. But my father immediately became unwell, and died very suddenly. I went back to the house with my new family to look after my mother, but we all came down with the same mysterious illness, and although we managed to stay alive, we had to remain indoors because we believed we were too contagious to go out.’
‘What happened? How did you get better?’
‘It turned out to be the house. A strange mould had grown in the cellar, and the spores were infecting everyone, but we didn’t know it. One day I went down to the cellar and I saw what was happening, so I fumigated the whole place. The mould began to recede, and everyone recovered. It was amazing!’
‘Remarkable! And the house?’
‘The house is ready for us to make our own again. We can all decide together how it will be from now on. We can re-join the outside world, and people can come for dinner or for weekends at a time.’
‘We made these cakes ourselves!’ says the youngest child.
‘And you’re the first person outside the family to try them!’ exclaims the eldest.
‘They’re the most delicious cakes I have ever tasted!’ I say.
‘We’re going to be bakers,’ says the middle child, ‘and bake cakes for the entire world from our home kitchen!’
‘Starting with the party for the village tonight,’ says the woman, ‘will you come? It’ll be wonderful night!’
‘I would be delighted,’ I say, ‘but for now I’ll leave you to enjoy your picnic in peace. Thank you for the tea and cake. Goodbye.’
‘Goodbye!’ the family all say at once.
The whippet needs coaxing. There is still food to be had. But he reluctantly departs with me.
We continue along the riverbank and turn left to cross the bridge over the river. I glance up at the sky, which seems to be clouding over. I hope the rain will hold off long enough for the family to finish their picnic, and that it won’t spoil tonight’s party. We reach the opposite bank and turn left again.
We stop in our tracks.
The same family are sitting right there, on the same blanket, right in front of us!
I look back across the river to where we’d just been, and the grassy verge is deserted. I am dizzy with confusion, but I manage to gather myself and walk up to the family.
‘Er… hello… again.’
‘What do you want?’ snaps the woman, ‘Can’t you see we’re having a family picnic here?’
The man has his back to me. He neither turns around, nor utters a word.
‘Yes, so you are. I’m sorry. But did we not… ? I mean… have we not just met?’
The woman looks me up and down.
‘I’ve never seen you in my life,’ she concludes, ‘now, like I said, leave us alone.’
‘But we were just talking, over there on the other side of the river,’ I protest, ‘you told me the story about your house and your illness, about the party tonight for the whole village.’
‘What party? Who the hell are you? Get lost before I lose my temper!’
I’m stunned. I look down at the blanket and notice signs of a struggle. It is very ruffled and there is food scattered all across it. I glance around. Someone is missing.
‘Where is the other child?’ I ask, ‘There should be three of them.’
‘What other child?’ growls the woman, ‘Both children are here.’
‘Mum made him sit in the car,’ says the youngest boy, ‘she didn’t like the cakes he’d made.’
‘Bullshit!’ the man strikes the boy across his face, ‘Stop making things up! You know what happens when you make things up!’
‘What happens when you make things up?’ I ask the child.
‘What the hell isthis?’ the woman snarls, ‘What happens in this family and on this picnic is our business! If children misbehave, they get punished. Otherwise they run amok!’
‘But you can’t lock a child up because you don’t like a cake he’s made!’
‘If he’d made the cake we wanted him to make, then he’d still be here.’
‘At least you’re admitting he exists now.’
The man stands up, and I see his face for the first time. He’s not the same man I’d met across the bank after all.
‘The child deserved to go,’ he says, ominously. He is quite an imposing figure, and I do not want to get into a physical altercation with him. The whippet is keeping close to me.
‘OK, look, I don’t want any trouble, I just thought… ’
‘Don’t think, just fuck off!’ snaps the woman.
The child looks as if he is about to speak, but then thinks better of it.
I stand for a moment and glance around. I can’t see a car. Where could the third child be?
’OK,’ I say, ‘I’m going.’
Rather than continue my walk, I decide that I’ve had enough for today. I am rather confused and alarmed by what’s just happened. Had I imagined it? I return to the bridge and cross the river once again. When I reach the other side, I turn right to re-trace my steps and stop again in horror!
There is the picnic scene once again!
I look back across the river. The opposite bank is deserted. I look back to the family. Except it isn’t a full family this time. Only the man and the woman are there, kneeling in a strange contorted manner so I can’t see the lower half of their bodies. They are not speaking, instead noisily and greedily devouring the picnic food in front of them. They do not look up at all.
My heart is beating so fast that I don’t know what to do. The whippet’s tail is firmly between his legs, and he is shaking. We approach cautiously, but they do not seem to notice us. What a foul scene it is! We creep as gingerly as we can, and as soon as we are past them, we run.
James N. Hutchinson is an artist who works curatorially. He lives in Glasgow.