It was called The Black Bull and I chose it because I was cold and wet, and the post bus had dropped me right outside its door. I dashed across the busy street, through the slanting rain. The pub was an open, low-ceiled room–more like a church basement than a typical Scottish pub–and it was gloomy. The bar formed a horseshoe against the back wall, and I took a stool at the bend nearest the door. It was the middle of the afternoon. The pub was almost empty. A few of the regulars were huddled up with the bartender at one end of the bar to my left, and they looked up with neutral glances as I sat down.
To my right, there was a gnome of a man with long, silky red hair and a matching beard. He was dressed in soiled old tweeds and a canvas overcoat. He was alone. Childhood associations leapt to mind: Rip Van Winkle or Rumpelstiltskin, perhaps.
The bartender set down the glass he’d been polishing and growled at me, “Whad’ye want?”
I ordered a pint of lager and a steak and kidney pie.
“And I suppose ye will be meanin’ to pay for that?”
Of course, I replied. He grunted and fetched my order.
As I ate, the red-haired man kept grinning and trying to catch my eye. His pint was empty, but the bartender wasn’t in any hurry to fill it up. When I pushed my empty plate away, he slipped off his barstool and sidled up to me. He was shorter than I had thought, stooped and gaunt, and he walked with a peculiar stiffness in his spine so that he seemed to be pushing his left shoulder through the air before him like the prow of a ship.
“Good day to you, stranger,” he said, thrusting his right hand at me with such violent force that it wrenched his whole body around. I took the proffered hand and almost recoiled in alarm when I squeezed down and realized that two of his fingers—the pinky and the ring finger—were missing.
“Don’t mind that,” he chuckled. “It always gives people a turn when they first see it. Archie Murchison’s me name. I’m something of a welcomin’ committee in these parts. I can see that ye are a stranger and, as such, I want to say that ye are welcome to our fair town and its environs. Judging from your accent, I would hazard that ye are American.”
Close, I told him. Canadian.
“A Canuck! Well then, you are truly welcome sir. I been in Canada once. Docked in Vancouver with a load of sugarcane. Met a lovely lass there. The two of us got on famously—like the flea and his dog, you might say—and we was just getting comfortable-like and feeling very friendly, if you catch my meaning, when I asks her, ‘Lass, how old are ye?’ ‘Fourteen, she replies.’” He whistled. “Fourteen, can ye imagine? Well, I got outa there right quick, I can tell ye. Now, what was her name?” He paused and furrowed his brow. Then he brightened up. “Hey, Squire. Your glass is empty. Dougal,” he piped to the bartender. “Dougal. Give us two pints will ye and a dram o’ the good stuff. There’s a good fellow.”
The bartender frowned at the little man and looked at me. I nodded.
“Will ye take a dram as well? Aye? Let me give ye a word of advice then about the uisgebeatha, the ‘water o’ life,’ that is: stay clear of that blended crap. You can take all of your Teachers and your Old Grouse and your Thousand Pipers and pour them in the ocean. A single malt is your only man. A single malt will put ye in touch with your ancestors. Aye, that it will.”
When he’d tossed off his first whiskey, he quizzed me on where I’d been and where I’d hoped to go. I admitted that I’d been out to the Culloden battlefield (“Can’t say it too loud around here,” he confided, “but if you ask me, Bonny Prince Charlie was a moron.”) and I told him how it had started to rain, and how I’d spent two hours with my thumb out in a downpour and didn’t get a ride until the post bus came along.
“Aye, it’s not like the old days. When I first came here, people were glad to give you a ride, glad for the company and the conversation, but the world’s turned a colder place, man, a much colder place.”
I agreed, recalling my sodden anorak and the cars splashing past.
“Aye,” he sighed and sadly shook his head, “the world, she’s a much colder place.”
“So you’re not from Inverness?” I asked.
“Heavens, no. Can’t ye guess where I’m from?”
“No, I couldn’t say.”
“Australia, man! Land of Oz. But I haven’t been home in…well, it must be fifty years. Fifty years since I first arrived in Scotland. Fifty years, imagine that. I fought in Vietnam too. That’s where I got this.” He waved his disfigured hand in front of my face.
“Vietnam? I didn’t know Australia sent soldiers to— ”
“Aye, nobody knows! And nobody cares! Australians were sent, and Kiwis, and Canadians too. I even saw some South Koreans. It was all part of the SEATO agreement. We were all sent in when the Frenchies pulled out. Gulf of Tongking, that’s where it happened to me. Standing me watch, I was, on the deck of a destroyer. It was absolutely quiet, perfectly still. Then, POW!” he slapped the bar with his pint glass and I jumped. “There was a flash of brilliant light, and I found myself lying on the deck in a pool of blood.” He told me how he’d been invalided out and put in an American military hospital. His whole right side was paralysed. “An American nurse taught me to crochet; she said it would bring back the movement to me arm. At first, they had to strap the crochet hook to me hand with an elastic bandage, for I could not grasp it, you see. But gradually the movement returned. Look,” he said, fumbling in his coat pocket and pulling out a floppy parti-coloured hat with a brim, the kind that movie pimps and Pierre Trudeau used to affect in the 70’s. “Never stopped making things.” He’d done his R-and-R in Japan and had spent a short time in a Japanese prison—“it was like the bloody Hilton, man”—for riding a train with “some Jap chickee” without a ticket. But the army bailed him out. “Guilty until proven innocent, you know,” he sighed and finished his beer. “But it was a magic place, man.” He looked at his empty glass. “What d’ye say: two more?”
“When I got back to Australia, it was a bad scene. We were pariahs. We were invisible. Nobody wanted to know us. Like we were criminals. I was pretty disillusioned. I had a bit of money from the army, so I lit out and went walkabout. I eventually drifted into Alice Springs and I shacked up with an Aboriginal woman, a lovely coffee-coloured lass. And that was the start of the healing process. I started asking meself questions, important questions, like: why do men have facial hair? Ever think of that?” He stroked his long silky beard. It reached almost to his belt. He stuck his beery face in mine and looked at me through his rheumy eyes. “Do you know what it’s there for, do ye? My girl knew: she told me. She said it was A SPIRITUAL ANTENNA.”
He paused and stared at me with great intensity. I knew I was supposed to be impressed by this bit of revealed wisdom.
“Wow,” I said.
“Aye.” He nodded solemnly and went on to tell me how he’d been adopted into the tribe and how he’d climbed Ayres Rock and been told stories of the Dream Time. “When I reached Singapore, I made the decision not to cut my hair again until I reached enlightenment.”
“Aye, and later on to Thailand.” (He pronounced it ‘thigh-land,’ which I thought strange.) “I was fed up with Australia. Too many rednecks. Too many closed minds. I was on a spiritual quest, so I travelled up the coast of Thigh-land to a place called Fuck-it and rented a hut on the beach and began to read.”
“Aye, Fuckit. P-H-U-K-E-T. Fuckit.”
“Oh. Phuket,” I said. He looked puzzled. “Never mind. Go on.”
“Well, as I was saying, I began to read and read and read—everything in sight.” He supported himself by driving a truck. The company he worked for only hired whites, preferably Americans, and he claimed to have had a U.S. passport by this time, to drive loads in and out of Rangoon. But he was primarily interested in his spiritual education.
“I studied up on Hinduism and Buddhism, Jainism and Sufism, Shintoism and Confucianism, Maoism and Taoism, Pietism and Quietism, Bonism and Monism, Islamism and Zoroastrianism—every ‘ism’ I could find. And I discovered that I was on to something: hair was important. It was an outward sign of an inner spiritual truth. We ought to let it grow. It’s an expression of the life force. The Hindus know this. Ever seen a Sadhu? And the Sikhs, what with those big turbine things they wear. You know what’s under all that silk? Why, hair! Hair, I tell ye! I read that the body has power centres. (Shakras, they’s called). The head—” He poked me in the forehead with a bony finger. “—is one. That’s why the Hindus dab paint on their foreheads; that’s why they let their hair grow. The heart,” he jabbed me in the chest, “is another. And the sex organs—” He waved his finger is the air, but seemed to think the better of it. “Well, you get the picture. All religions is the same, ye know.”
With a crippled finger he drew a straight line through a puddle of spilt beer on the bar.
“All the great writers laid down a truth like a straight line, and then,” he began to etch a wavy line obscuring the first, “they wove their tale around it. God, all this talking is making me dry. What d’ye say? Another round? There’s a good lad.”
He reached Nepal—“A magic place, man. One of the most magic places”—and settled down quite happily in the bazaar until a wandering band of Australians persuaded him to tag up with them. In their party was an American nurse en route to Bangladesh. Predictably, he fell in love. He followed her to her posting and went to work as an orderly in a hospital set up for famine victims. “These arms, man! These arms have carried I don’t know how many dead babies. It sickened me. I couldn’t take it no more, so after six months, I left.” After a period of drifting aimlessly in India, he crossed the Khyber Pass. “It was winter and it was blessed cold, I can tell you. I nearly froze to death in the back of that truck with the other human cattle. Then I reached Afghanistan, what the locals here still call Purzia, and disaster struck. I lost everything: gear, passport, money. I was destitute.”
“You were robbed?”
“Aye, robbed and beaten and left for dead like the Hebrew merchant in the parable. (There’s a Samaritan in me tale too, but he didn’t come along right away). Karkoram bandits it was what did it for me, the same bastards who would give them Rooshians such a hard time a few years later.”
“What did you do? Did you go to your embassy?”
“There weren’t no embassy in that little fleabag town. Nor no consul either. I was in pretty rough shape by then. I hadn’t been eatin’ too well for some time, ye understand, and I’d become rather habituated to the hash pipe, and so, what with the workin’ over those thugs had given me and the hashish, I was a bloody mess.”
“Well, I got a job as a street sweeper, and I earned enough coin to get a bowl to eat at the end of each day. Finding a place to sleep wasn’t a problem. I always had a warm corner to curl up in each night. The Afghans are a contrary people; they can be cruel, even vicious, and yet they have a code of hospitality that shames us in our so-called Western civilization.
“Well, that was pretty much rock bottom for me. I don’t know if ye have ever been out of work and on the lam, but it lowers a person, it does. Dehumanizes him. You lose your dignity. You become like an animal. But there was this tavern keeper who kept track of me, gave me arak and eventually took me in, cleaned me up, bandaged me sores and gave me a clean shirt to wear. He connected me with a rich American who needed a crew for his sailing yacht, as his previous crew—a German one—had jumped ship. So I fetched in with him. I’d done some sailing before ye understand. I’d been in the merchant marine before the war. I told you about Montreal—”
He looked a little puzzled, but only for a second. “Right, Vancouver it was. Well, as I was saying, I fetched in with this Yank millionaire and sailed his yacht around the Gulf of Oman and through the Suez. I jumped ship in Malta—got a little too friendly with his daughter, ye see—and I sort of drifted across Europe. Did some work in London—odd jobs mostly—hung out in Soho, which was some place in those days, and finally came to port in the Isle of Skye.” He told me how he had acquired a job as a rigger on an oil platform. Eventually he had moved to Inverness, doing much the same thing. He had married a local girl and had two teenage daughters. They lived in a council house at the edge of town. “I’m sort of in the dog house at the moment,” he confessed sheepishly. “The wife objects to me drinking.”
It was quite a story, and I told him so.
“It is, isn’t it? I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m writing a book: MY LIFE HISTORY. Not for publication, you understand, but for me daughters. I think it’s important for them to know what kind of fellow their old man was. I got a little recording machine and I’m putting it all down on tape, so as I can write it down later.”
He told me more about his daughters, but eventually, it was time for me to go. I told Murchison that I was pleased to have met him, and to have passed the time so pleasantly. I caught the barkeeper’s eye. “I think we’d better settle up.”
“Don’t be so hasty, sir,” Murchison said. “Let’s have one more dram for the road. A bit o’ whiskey in the belly is a comfort on a wet day such as it is. Ye go ahead and order. I’ve a certain pony that needs waterin’, if ye know my meaning?” He winked and jogged a thumb at the washroom door.
I ordered the drinks and set to thinking. I was troubled. Certain details of the man’s story didn’t ring true. To begin with, I was pretty certain that Afghanistan had no ocean port, and that the modern name for Persia was Iran. Then there was the little problem of pronunciation; surely anyone who had spent even five minutes in the Far East knew how to pronounce “Thailand” and “Phuket,” and wasn’t Rangoon in Burma? But it was the math that bothered me most. The Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred shortly after President Kennedy’s assassination, and was the excuse LBJ used for full-scale American military involvement in Vietnam. Kennedy was killed in November of 1963. That was a date I could remember. If Murchison had lived in Scotland for fifty years, as he claimed, then time would appear to be flowing backwards. Still, my brain was pretty fuzzy with alcohol. I may have misheard him.
The bartender set a single glass of whiskey down in front of me.
“But we ordered two,” I said.
“Aye, but ye won’t be needing two unless ye plan to drink them both thyself, for he’s noot cumin’ back.”
“Auld Archie’s done a bunk.”
I sat in silence while this sank in. “Did you know he wasn’t coming back?”
“Aye, we’re wise to him ‘round here.” He laughed, “Did he string ye a lot o’ malarkey aboot Vietnam and Ayrabs and sooch like?”
“You mean none of it’s true, the war wounds, none of it?”
“He got the hand when his caravan burned down. Liken he was piss drunk at the time. Nay, Auld Arch was born and bred right here; never been much further away then head o’ loch.”
“But where do the stories come from?”
“I dinna ken, exactly. Pairtly from noospapers, I expect; but mostly from travellers like theeself.”
“You could have warned me.”
“Aye,” he assented coolly, “could ‘ave.” He put his hands on the bar. “But let me ask ye this: Did ye have oother plans for this aftairnoon? Did ye have places to go, important persons to speak wi’? Ye assairted theeself it was a pleasant way to pass a dreary hour. I’d say Archie earned his wee dram o’ ye.”
Three wee drams, I thought angrily, and an equal number of lagers. But then I laughed.
“Here’s your money,” I said with a grin. For, in my mind, I saw a weary traveller stumbling into The Black Bull on a not-too-distant day and slumping against the bar next to a red-bearded gnome who’d say:
“Miserable weather outside isn’t it sir? Why, I tell you, I spent six hours today with me thumb out, near Culloden it was, and nary a soul…”
Front page image by samsaundersleeds.