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There Is Always A Light
That Never Goes Out

By: Sergio Burns

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A big winter sky stretched out above the little northwest town of Ullapool, changing from grey to charcoal marbled with streaks of vermillion and mimosa. A darkening icy twilight fell, and low clouds, plump with snow, filled the heavens. Inside the Ceilidh Place, the seminar for bun sales representatives meandered on toward its conclusion.

Gordon McMurdo, at 30, recently appointed leading bun rep for Millar and McGhee's King James bun, glanced impatiently at his wristwatch. Already teetering on the edge of executive burn-out in an effort to keep a smile on his bank manager's face, McMurdo was now responsible for the whole of the north of Scotland. From Oban in the southwest to Thurso in the northeast, and all places in between. As darkness descended outside, the only thing on Gordon's mind was driving the eighty miles or so east to his home near Golspie.

McMurdo cursed under his breath and checked the time again, as Amanda Gibbons from head office in Aberdeen was introduced to the audience. Arriving on stage to polite applause.

He would, he thought to himeslf, rather bathe in a cesspool full of sharks than go through anymore of this, and saw the road of life unravel before him. Shiny tarmac cutting through the great wilderness of his existence, the whole emptiness of his present lifestyle crushing him like a rat in a tightened vice. His life had become a great, sterile desert across which he chased currency in the transubstantiation of the burger bun. Somehow he knew he would be hawking buns until his hair turned grey and thinned, his eyes grew tired and myopic, his teeth yellowed and his car fell to bits. His very being disintegrating into a great black hole of time and purposelessness.

At the end of the seminar, when he wanted to rush off, he held back, shook hands and chatted with those he was expected to shake hands and chat to, nodded in the right places and eventually excused himself with a polite "Well I really must be going before the weather closes in."

As he made his way to his car, struggling with his brief case and flipchart he worried that he had stayed longer than was wise given the weather conditions. In fact, he slipped several times on the icy road as he crossed to his vehicle, and felt the first flakes of snow dance about his head. He thought about signs, about God mocking him, about the dark eighty miles ahead, about monsters and ghosts and of being haunted and made anxious by the weather report, about his wife who waited at home this Christmas Eve 2003.

Leaving Ullapool, the sales rep headed east along the A835 past Leckmelm and Ardcharnich toward Corrieshalloch Gorge. No sooner had he left the environs of the little town, than snow was falling heavily and the wind gathered pace. Visibility deteriorated quickly from bad to poor, forcing him to reduce speed.

He drove by instinct, guessing where the centre of the road was and kept left of that imaginary line. Peering through the windscreen he could see the deserted road ahead of him become rapidly buried in snow, and felt the blackness of the Ros-shire night sinisterly embrace him.

Just short of Braemore Junction he found himself trying to guide his Ford Fiesta through the middle of a blizzard, his wheels slipping on the snowy surface, the car sliding and faltering on the milky white surface, as he tip-toed away from Ullapool.

He struggled on, the blizzard covering his windscreen in snow quicker than his wipers could cope. It was impossible to see where he was going. He decided to pull in at, what he guessed was, the next available layby, and eventually rolled to a halt twelve miles southeast of the little town. He punched his steering wheel in frustration. There was, for McMurdo, the realisation that he would be unable to make it home for Christmas. He would, he now knew, have to travel the twelve miles back to Ullapool on foot and book in at the Ceilidh Place for the night. That would mean a reunion with the people he was so eager to leave behind. Those who lived for the 'bun', who put their careers ahead of everything for the sake of the company and their own self aggrandizement.

McMurdo could only hope that the weather would have improved sufficiently by Christmas Day to allow his return to his wife.

Soon the car was cocooned, the strong, rising winds driving drifting snow half way up the driver's door. He sat for several minutes and gathered his thoughts, then punched several numbers into his mobile phone and called his wife.

"Hello, Linda? Gordon…yes…darling…no about twelves miles southeast of Ullapool, I've had to stop, the weather is so bad. What? No…in a layby. I'll have to turn back and head for Ullapool on foot. Yes, of course, I'll be okay." The phone went dead, as the Nokia ran out of power. He tried several times to call his wife back but the phone's battery had gone and he eventually gave up.

McMurdo climbed out of his car and prepared himself for the walk back to town. The blizzard had intensified, a roaring wind driving snow into his face, stinging, as it made contact with his skin. Visibility is poor and for a few moments he is disorientated, not sure which way to go. Regaining some composure and gathering himself, he finally decides to strike out in the direction he considers is northwest.

As he ploughs on into the storm, sinking knee-deep into snow, the wind whistling past his ears with the noise of a rushing train, McMurdo felt the early effort rapidly drain the power from his body, and he was forced to take frequent breaks to gather his breath. It was, he thought to himself, like walking through treacle in a wind tunnel. Head down the collar of his coat turned up against the storm, his overcoat flapping like the wings of a frightened bird, Gordon forced himself on and into the night.

Soon he was no longer sure he was still on the Ullapool road, or if he had wandered onto some side road off the A835. He began to think that he might be lost, indeed, that he was lost and for a few seconds felt something like panic well up inside him. What concerned him now, was that he was no longer sure in which direction his car was, and doubts crept into his mind. As he stumbled on through the knee-deep snow and the bitingly harsh wind, thoughts began to nag at him. What if he was lost, and could not find shelter, what would become of him?

He recalled lurid newspaper and magazine stories about people becoming lost in similar conditions and their chances of survival. He had watched documentaries on television where people succumbed to hypothermia and lost their lives.

McMurdo cursed the bun seminar. He cursed his job, his own ambition, and the person who had the bright idea of holding such an event on Christmas Eve.

He didn't want to die. He tried to think about what people did in such situations. Dig themselves into the snow? Was that it? Shelter from the wind behind a large rock? He couldn't see five foot in front of himself, how was he going to find a rock? Pen a farewell letter to loved ones?

Tears welled up in his eyes, as much from frustration as regret, and finding some renewed strength from somewhere resolved to keep moving against the storm which was mercilesslly tearing at him.

As each step became increasingly difficult and the wind and snow and the force of the storm sapped the little strength he still had, McMurdo thought he heard a dog bark in the distance. He stopped and stood motionless, straining to hear above the rush and roar of the wind. It was a dog, somewhere close, he reasoned, gruffing her canine opinions to the universe. His radar locked onto the dog and searched for direction. He was moving again, walking slowly toward the the sound. Suddenly he fell, tumbling forward into the soft snow. Cursing, as his weight and gravity conspired to pull him forward and down. The barking stopped. He looked up slowly from his prostrate position on top of the snow, his face inches from the ground.

Gordon listened but could no longer hear the dog. The sound disappearing into that wretched night as quick as it had started. As he raised his head and prepared to stand, he thought he caught a glimpse of a light in the distance. He rose to his knees and peered through the blanket of snow being driven at him by the blizzard. Somehwere to his left a light flickered weakly.

He was driving forward again. The light, though poor, was becoming brighter. Soon he had passed a sign, which when brushed clear of snow said 'Colvinholm Farm.' Then the dark shape of an old farmhouse emerged from the gloom. The dog started barking again. This time warning its master of an approaching stranger.

Gordon was almost at the door of the farmhouse when it was opening, a dog bounding out to greet him, a gnarled old man walking with some difficulty appearing from behind the friendly collie.

"Hello?" The old man called out, the energetic dog weaving back and forward between master and stranger.

"I was lost!" was all that a relieved Gordon McMurdo could utter.

"Come in, come in." The old farmer bade McMurdo, "You shouldn't be abroad on a night like this."

The old man led his visitor through the candlelit hall, the wind moaning as it circled the house. "The storm's blew the electricity out." The old man explained as he ushered Gordon through to the front room. "Always happens when we have blizzards." The farmer gestured for the sales rep to take a seat on the armchair by the coal fire.

The old man introduced himself as Jake Hill and told McMurdo to get some heat back into his bones. He organised some supper made on his gas cooker, and later invited the sales rep to join him in a malt. The two men were soon glowing by the fire, as the storm raged to its full fury around the old farmhouse at Colvinholm. The dog Tess, brought toys for Gordon, and the grateful sales rep was soon playing tug with the lively dog.

Jake allowed McMurdo to use his phone, and Gordon called his wife on a crackling line to let her know he was safe.

Accentuated in the unstable shadows cast by the candles, the old farmer's face was a patchwork of deep weatherbeaten lines, layered on top of a craggy bone structure, framed by a sea wave of white wispy hair tinged with cigarette yellow. The battle of man and the elements, and the struggle with the earth of the land were etched like a map onto the face of old Jake.

The men chatted happily into the night, the farmer sharing his favourite Talisker malt with his new found friend. He recounted the number of deaths on the road over the past thirty years of his tenure at Colvinholm Farm. He showed Gordon the framed photograph of his dear departed wife Sally, which now took pride of place on his mantlepiece, and the two discussed life, the mysteries of the universe, the time-space continuum and shinty, and football, Hill and McMurdo's respective favourite sports.

At midnight they toasted Christmas with another generous malt and wished each other peace. McMurdo, brightened by his rescue, played another game of tug with the exuberant Tess, who got slightly out of control, and knocked over a candle with her swishing tail setting fire to the curtains. For a few minutes there was mayhem. McMurdo sprinting back and foward to the kitchen to fetch water in a basin and eventually extinguishing the fire. Jake scolded Tess, but Gordon was quick to leap to her defence and shoulder some of the blame.

The two men settled down once more to some lively whisly-fuelled conversation. Tess, worn out by the arrival of a stranger and all the excitement of the fire, stretched out on her side by the hearth, heat radiating out from the slowly diminishing flames and warming her.

Outside, as the two men bonded over malts and swapped tales of their existence, the blizzard raged to its peak, before beginning to decline. It was after three in the morning before Jake led McMurdo up the creaking wooden stairs and showed the sales rep where he would be sleeping. Gordon thanked the old man for his generosity, but Hill waved him aside and said he was glad of the company, and the two men bid each other goodnight.

Gordon McMurdo woke to the sound of Tess barking out her greeting to Christmas Day. Wrapped in a duvet, Gordon rose and made his way to the window. Jake Hill was in the courtyard throwing snowballs. Tess was eagerly chasing them, only to find herself bemused as the snowballs crashed to the ground and vanished into the snow without trace.

The storm had passed, a weak sun glinted on the snow, and as far as the eye could see, dark spectre-like trees dusted with a thin layer of white icing on dark branches, and a white carpet of fields intersected by half-hidden fences, ran toward the clear blue sky on the horizon.

After breakfast old Jake ran Gordon back to the layby in his Land Rover. McMurdo surprised to find that it was only two miles away. The two men shook hands and embraced, and Gordon McMurdo had a special hug for Tess.

The journey back along the A835 and onto the A9 was slow, but Gordon was soon home and relaxing, enjoying the Christmas festivities with all his friends and family. Then, two thousand and four arrived with hope and freshness on the doorstep of the McMurdo's.

Gordon changed jobs at the end of January, he became a whisky rep and was quickly promoted. He enjoyed his new job, it presented him with less hassles and seemed far more enjoyable that his former role within the bun company. Plus, it paid better money and he had more holidays.

Scotland slowly emerged from the depths of winter into spring and then summer. The land warmed. The gentle tu-tu-tu of the Greenshank filled the skies once more, the sweet, whizzing buzz of the golden-ringed dragonfly flitted across moorland again, before darkness shaded once more toward winter.

As Christmas approached once more, Gordon McMurdo's thoughts turned toward his near death battle with the elements the year before. With holidays to take he suggested to his wife that they journey over to Ullapool for a couple of nights at the Ceilidh Place, and look in on old Jake and the dog Tess on the way through.

As they travelled, McMurdo imagined Jake coming out to greet him, a look of utter surprise on his face, Tess leaping and jumping with excitement as she is reunited with her old playmate. But he found it difficult to find the single track road which led to Colvinholm and drove on to Ullapool where he resigned himself to the fact that he would have to ask locals for directions back to the farm.

Gordon and his wife lunched at a small cafe called The Frigate on the main street, before walking by the harbour beneath a darkened heavy sky. Torrential rain later that evening drove most people indoors and McMurdo and his wife Linda found themselves at a table in the bar at the Ceilidh Place, relaxing and chatting happily about their plans for Christmas, only a few days away.

At the bar ordering pernod for his wife and a glass of Talisker, he had acquired a taste for it, for himself, Gordon struck up a conversation with one of the locals and his wife. A fisherman called Vincent with a black patch over one eye, and his spouse Caroline.

McMurdo asked for directions to Colvinholm Farm explaining that the Christmas before he had ran into that awful blizzard, and purely by luck had stumbled across the farm as he tried to walk back to Ullapool after abandoning his car. It was, he told the trawlerman and his wife, the worst experience of his life. "I thought I was going to die." he told them. He went to recount the generosity of the old farmer Jake Hill who took him in and gave him shelter, how he had played with the dog Tess, and how the dog had almost set the house ablaze after its tail knocked over a candle.

Vincent, the trawlerman and Caroline simply looked at each other in surprise. They checked McMurdo's facts.

"You mean Colvinholm Farm, just past Ardcharnich, before Braemore Junction?" Vincent enquired. Gordon nodded.

"Well…" Vincent started up again at length, "I don't know who rescued you mister, but Colvinholm Farm burned down during a blizzard on Christmas Eve 1994. Old Jake Hill and his dog Tess both perished."

"The curtains caught fire." Caroline chimed in. "The electricty had gone out and old Jake had lit the farmhouse with candles, seems the dog must have knocked one over, the old man was plagued by arthritis and wasn't fast enough to put the fire out, it caught hold and Colvinholm was burned to a crisp."

McMurdo's mouth fell open.

"Strangest thing." Vincent began again. "On that very same night, a man was found in his car in a layby, frozen to death. He was only two miles from the farm. Funny how things work out on people's decisions." The trawlerman smoothed his bearded chin and winked at Gordon with his good eye.

The sales rep returned to his table with the drinks. He was confused and frowned as he placed the refreshments on the table.

"You look as if you've seen a ghost." His wife said to him, taking her drink, raising it to her mouth and sipping from it.

"Maybe I have." McMurdo replied, taking a seat and staring off into space, Vincent's words echoing around his head.

"Anyway." his wife said, reaching across and grabbing her husband's hand. "This will be my last drink."

"Why?" McMurdo's attention returned to his wife.

"Because I am pregnant."

In a millisecond McMurdo's face changed from bemused confusion to joy, he hugged his wife, and ordered drinks for Vincent and Caroline and invited them to join his wife and him at their table. The four celebrated as if Christmas had come early.

Later in their room at the Ceilidh Place, Gordon McMurdo paced the floor. While his wife slumbered soundly, Gordon had found it impossible to get the events of the evening out of his head and couldn't fall asleep. He couldn't believe that Old Jake and Tess had died in a fire, as Vincent had said, a decade before. He, after all, had been there, had drank malt with the man, had played tug with the dog, had slept in the upstairs bedroom.

In the early hours of the morning, standing by the window, McMurdo looked out across Christmas Ullapool. The town, brightly lit by a full moon, creeping from behind parting clouds. At once he noticed a large star in the sky. It was brighter and bigger than any other star in the wide, dark universe. Then, he swore he saw an angelic dog barking as it ran across the heavens, her master following, the old man winking and waving as he disappeared into the cosmos.

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