Huddled in the back of our father’s motor, my brother and I became twin conspirators against him. He of the heavy hips, of the shaving rash, of the absent wife. Our mother had left him the preceding Christmas and even in our infant understandings we recognised something obscene in his resulting isolation.
We were given to him two weekends a month, to be ferried between amusements and the two-bedroomed place he barely afforded out near the Quay, taken for special dinners and told we would always have a room wherever he was. We were arrogant little bundles of boy and never doubted his dedication; in fact we took it for granted. Of course he would do anything to have us close. Of course he would move hell and earth to be near us. We were his eye-apples.
So, huddled in his motor, we felt nothing for him and turned quickly to spite.
‘Is it just me or is this getting exciting?’ he yelled from the front, yellow countryside swarming in all windows. ‘We’re gonnae be there any second.’
The ‘there’ he was referring to was Dalnoon Castle and Country Park, ancestral home of Clan Cuthburt.
‘Well?’ he said.
‘I’m hungry,’ my brother said, smiling at me.
‘I’m wanting a drink,’ I said, winking to my brother.
‘Don’t you worry yourselves,’ smiled our father into the rear view mirror. ‘We’ll be picnicking shortly.’
And so it came to pass. Car parked, toll paid, we scrambled as a trio down pathways to the Castle proper, to the benches clustered in its austere shadow. The day was overcast and as such we had our pick of benches to climb up onto and wait to be served. Our father looked up at the money-grey sky and winced.
‘Never mind,’ he said. ‘We can’t control everything, can we lads? Now. Lunch.’ He swung his rucksack off his shoulder and began to administer our picnics. ‘Here we have ham and cheese sandwiches, pork pies, peanuts, blackcurrant squash…’
My brother and I divided the foil-wrapped parcels among ourselves, crimping them open to reveal the damp matter within.
‘Ham and cheese?’ I asked.
Our father smiled. ‘Aye. That’s right.’
‘I can’t have cheese,’ I said. ‘Did you not know?’
‘I don’t eat meat anymore,’ said my brother. ‘It’s a personal choice.’
Up on the castle’s battlements an old man appeared, his wheelchair pushed to the precipice by an unseen relative. In a voice as ancient and gnarled as a native forest he howled an obscene word across the castle grounds before being swiftly wheeled off out of sight.
Our father watched this happen, sighed, and then collected our sandwiches, swapping the fillings around so that I had only ham, my brother only cheese.
‘Better?’ he asked, but our mouths were too full of mangled loaf to answer.
Lunch dealt with, refuse responsibly discarded, we made our way up the elegant sloped driveway to the castle gift shop and ticket office, where we were informed that entrance was a flat twenty-pound fee.
Our father repeated the sum to the smiling woman, twice. ‘Really?’ he asked.
‘Really,’ she confirmed. ‘We feel twenty-pounds represents really excellent value for money. That also gives you access to the Ice Cellars and the Georgian Maze.’
The Georgian Maze? There was something we could use.
‘The maze Dad,’ we whined. ‘The maze!’
‘What about the grounds?’ he asked, struggling to control us. ‘Are the grounds ticketed?’
The woman admitted that no, technically, a person could enter the grounds free of charge and with that he scooped up his mewling brats before they could cause any further ruckus. You could sense his patience wearing thin as a cadaver as he marched us around the castle’s walls and through a flowered gateway to the grounds. We kicked our heels and let ourselves fall so that our palms could skin, howling and grimacing and asking to be carried. He was to be commended, our father, for his ability to remain sane in the face of our concentrated evil. We were taken to the banks of a duck pond, ringed in reeds and meandering families.
‘There you are,’ spat our father. ‘A nice pond to look at.’
‘I want to go home,’ I said, working myself up into a state of near-nauseous excitement. ‘To my mummy’s home.’
‘Listen you little…’ began our father, kneeling on the red blaze path, losing his cool, his fingers worming through the air in the direction of my shoulders. Before he could reach me though, something stopped him. Through the low grey cloud came flying an oily bird, wings crooked and neck long. It fluttered down to the tiny island in the middle of the pond and came to rest with its wings held outstretched. We all paused to look at it, never having seen anything like it before.
‘What’s that?’ asked my brother, pointing at the bird’s greasy back. There was something unsettling about it alright.
Our father rose and put his hand on his neck. ‘I don’t know son,’ he admitted. ‘It looks quite rare.’
And at that second a blonde family turned a corner in the path, revealing themselves to us. Their curly little daughter ran forward. ‘Look Daddy!’ she squealed to her own father. ‘A cormorant!’
Our father looked at the little girl and then at the bird. He said, ‘Alright,’ and dragged us off, away through the grounds.
Later, driving home, the afternoon succumbed to cloud and fizzled out once and for all. We informed our father that we wanted to go to our room when we got home. He nodded as he stared through the windscreen and invited us to do whatever the fuck we wanted.
Daniel Shand is a writer based in Edinburgh, and you can follow him on Twitter here.